These days, Ang Lee is generally regarded as one of the most well-respected and acclaimed directors working in film – well, before Taking Woodstock, anyway. But a decade ago, he hadn't yet made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, his commercial breakthrough – although Sense and Sensibility was an arthouse hit - and was essentially one of many promising talents who made interesting films that attracted critics and awards but had audiences staying away in droves.
To be fair, I'd been a fan of his since Eat Drink Man Woman, a film which I still count among my favorites of all time, and was rapturously in love with The Ice Storm. But I admit that until very recently, albeit perhaps not without good reason, I never saw Ride With the Devil. The truth is that very few people did, at least during its theatrical run. But thanks to a glorious (as the rest of theirs) new Blu-ray from the good folks at Criterion, I finally watched the film, specifically to see whether it was unjustly forgotten or absolutely worth getting. Hence, this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Originally released in a handful of U.S. theaters on November 24, 1999, Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil only made it into 60 theaters – earning a grand total of $650,000 - before being pulled by distributor Universal Pictures. Despite starring Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, Jewel, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jim Caviezel and others, the film scarcely found a better audience on DVD, and received virtually no recognition from the critical community – no doubt due in at least part to its unavailability. Currently the film enjoys an underwhelming 62 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: It turns out this is really a terrific movie. In an equally-terrific interview with Jeffrey Wright on the new Blu-ray, the actor observes that the film provides a generational counterpoint to Birth of a Nation, and it's interesting to consider the film as a meditation on race, and a rewardingly sophisticated take on race relations both then and now. But one of the reasons the film works so well is because it's not "about" race relations, but that component of the storytelling exists within a larger tapestry of narratives about each character, their relationships with one another, and their respective roles in a larger social and political context.
Specifically, Wright's character bonds with Maguire's character, a Dutch descendant who is fully integrated into Southern culture but who still suffers prejudice at the hands of native Southerners who seem him as an outsider. That the film never steers toward "great white savior" clichés but keeps the two characters on an even keel, evolving with one another as their friendship develops, is but one dimension of Lee's virtuoso technique here as a visual and narrative stylist; rather, the director manages to create a satisfying sense of epicness while keeping the characters and conflicts connected to a recognizable or at least relatable reality.
The performances are all wonderful as well, starting with Wright and Maguire, but literally going through the entire cast – especially Jewel, who seems to have a face made for prairie living. Here, she's natural and beautiful, the kind of woman rough-hewn soldiers would flock to by the dozen, but she gives her character a luminous lack of affectation and a practicality that makes her relationships with the male characters seem both a product of pragmatism and romance.
What Doesn't Work: Although there are a number of beautifully-staged battle scenes, the film isn't arch enough as a melodrama for what many people will either want or expect. There are a number of dramatic revelations, but they mostly happen off screen or via someone relaying news, and the film builds an adversarial relationship between two characters that ends, quite frankly, more maturely and intelligently, but probably not in a way that provides that cathartic sense of victory or triumph. Indeed, that may be the film's biggest "problem:" it's thoughtful and reflective and subtle, which is all what a big historical epic shouldn't be. Characters make decisions based on what they need rather than what the story needs, and as a result, it seems less satisfying than a more conventional film of this kind.
What's The Verdict: Ride With the Devil works far better than its checkered past would suggest. Typical for Lee, the film is remarkably sensitive and intelligent, but isn't quite the kind of film audiences expect – which, as his subsequent work has shown, can be both a good and bad thing. But as far as yours truly is concerned, Lee is a master-class director and this is perhaps his most-overlooked film, even if it isn't quite a masterpiece. Criterion's Blu-ray gorgeously preserves Frederick Elmes' amazing cinematography, offers two commentaries, and that terrific interview with Wright, but the bottom line is come for the film, stay for the extras, because any fan of Ang Lee should have this film in their collection.