- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

Ang Lee’s powerful, achingly beautiful “Ride With the Devil,” about a youth’s coming of age during the Civil War, is the most welcome of Christmas presents Hollywood has to offer us this season. In a word, it’s a masterpiece.
Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, the film follows the adventures of 19-year-old Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), poor son of German immigrants in Missouri, and his best friend, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), son of a wealthy Missouri plantation owner, as they join a Confederate guerrilla band, the Bushwhackers, and harass Union forces in the back country and roads along the Kansas-Missouri border during the early years of the Civil War.
The men leading them are only in their 20s themselves Black Jack (James Caviezel) and Southern aristocrat George Clyde (Simon Baker). Clyde has brought along his slave, a man with whom he grew up, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright in a marvelous, unstereotypical performance) a situation that creates its own measure of tension with these Southern men and their notions of how slaves are to be regarded.
Scenes of intense brutal action are intercut with scenes of a bucolic, lyric beauty both handled with consummate skill. Mr. Lee has already proved his power as a director in two quite different earlier works Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Ice Storm” but this latest work shows how much more he can do.
Mr. Lee brings off one bravura sequence of particular brilliance culminating in a re-creation of the infamous attack on Lawrence, Kan., by Quantrill’s Raiders. As the Confederate leader Quantrill, John Ales gives a memorable performance in one vivid scene in which he calls on his men to pillage and burn the town. It’s scary and convincing as all get-out.
What makes “Ride With the Devil” so unusually interesting is Mr. Lee’s attention to period detail in every way. Not only the costumes and sets, but the very look and bearing of the actors invoke a feeling of authenticity about that era reminiscent of the famed Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady. He makes you feel as if you are transported back to that time.
The language, too, is faithful to the period. No anachronisms here. The film, incidentally, is an adaptation of a well-received novel, “Woe to Live On,” by Daniel Woodrell, published a few years back. Screenwriter and producer James Schamus has said that about half his work “was simply transcribing what Woodrell had already written.” (Yes, the producers knew the original title would not be much of a draw at the box office, hence the change.)
Tobey Maguire has just the right quality portraying a youth becoming a man during a time of war. He discovers he is a good fighter and brave. He also is shaped by his relations with the men in his outfit, in particular a fellow outsider, the independent-spirited slave Daniel Holt. He also encounters a woman, the youthful widow Sue Lee (pop singer Jewel, fair and fresh of hair and skin but no beauty by any means). Young Jake may have killed 15 men, but he has yet to kiss a woman.
Mr. Woodrell’s novel has been re-issued in paperback under the film’s title. He writes tight and graceful prose. It is worth noting that he is Missouri-born and raised. He joined the Marines at age 17 and saw action in Vietnam, so he can speak with a certain authority when it comes to young men under enemy fire.

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