Directed by Ang Lee

Nobody is innocent in America, but there is one segment of the population that seems doggedly determined to deny its own ignorance, ugliness and violence. So hands up now -- who really likes rednecks? The sludge on the bottom of the melting pot, this embarrassing offshoot of European ancestry continues, to this day, to foment racist terrorism, religious bigotry and hate crimes from sea to shining sea. Every now and then, Hollywood belches forth a concerned movie about them (Costa-Gavras' Betrayed, with Debra Winger and Tom Berenger, leaps to mind). But rarely, if ever, does Hollywood release a compassionate, thoughtful movie about the roots, essential humanity and struggles of this ideologically challenged subculture. Until now.

With Ride with the Devil, director Ang Lee has taken on the daunting task of loving America's Confederate underbelly -- a major ingredient in the composition of the common redneck. His knack for atmospheric nuance and grasp of changing seasons (both of climate and of the heart) have also enabled him to bring to the screen one of the most vital war movies ever made.

The year is 1861, the place is the Kansas-Missouri border, and the conflict is the Civil War, newly sparked by the formation of the Southern Confederacy. Young Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and his friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) are attending a joyful wedding. Jake, the poor son of a German immigrant father, finds the ceremony pleasing, but he cannot imagine partaking in such a ritual himself. Soon enough, however, notions of matrimony (and peaceful existence) are shoved far aside. Jake and Jack Bull are forced into manhood by the arrival of war, manifested by a gang of pro-Union Jayhawkers who murder Jack Bull's father and burn down his family's house.

A year later, Jake and Jack Bull have joined the fighting but not, technically, the army. Sympathizers for the Southern cause have their wild riders, too, and the boys have become outlaw bushwhackers, descending on Union forces guerrilla-style. "Battles and armies?" muses Jake. "That's all back East. Down here you've just got the people to fight you." Teamed with trigger-happy Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, leering gargoyle), effete George Clyde (Simon Baker, inflated dandy) and Clyde's dependable former slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright, solemn protector), Jake and Jack Bull ride under Black John (James Caviezel, dubious commander). After a couple of violent skirmishes and some painful losses, it's clear that the knaves have adopted the ways of the bushwhackers: Move covertly, attack swiftly and spare the women and children (oh, and wear flamboyant shirts, drawl archaic pleasantries and keep the hair long).

The story's focus sharpens when winter comes, and Jake, Jack Bull, Clyde and Holt are forced to hole up in a makeshift dugout deep in the woods. Attended by Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), the widowed daughter of the bushwhackers' benefactor and supplier, Mr. Evans (Zach Grenier), the men come to terms with their motivations and each other. Jake's wounded innocence, Jack Bull's do-or-die wildness and Clyde's romantic distractions all come to the fore. Most poignantly, Holt's struggle for meaning in his ultimately self-defeating ride is given careful attention. At this point, Ride with the Devil ceases to be just a war movie (although there's much more fighting to come), veering instead into the intimate depiction of souls under fire in a divided land. The energy Jake, Holt and Sue Lee give off is incredibly subtle but highly charged, with Jake emerging as the film's hero.

This is heady subject matter; the protagonists are fighting for a cause that supports not only time-honored traditions but slavery as well. Lee explains in his notes that filming Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On (for the movie, the title was shot down because of the word "Woe") appealed to him because he saw the Civil War as representing the beginning of the Americanization of the entire world, including his own native Taiwan. "It was where the Yankees won not only territory but, in a sense, a victory for a whole way of life and thinking," he states. (In the film, Mr. Evans echoes this sentiment: "They have no regard to station, custom and propriety, and that is why they will win -- because they want everyone to live and think the same way they do.") Scholars of history may find this film quite a valuable document for its provocative themes.

Fortunately, the movie's tone is about as far from a dry political dissertation as it can get. In this, Lee's most ambitious and successful work yet, his celebrated gift for psychological shading and complexity is on proud display. The director of The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm has ventured into vast new territory with Ride with the Devil (which he has jokingly called The Mud Storm) and guided his actors into shrewd, sensitive portrayals. The actors meet the challenge with rare grace, especially Wright (Basquiat), who deserves Oscar consideration for the veiled sensitivity he projects as Holt. In one scene, after a massive raid, Jake and Holt land their eyes on a pile of slain African-American men, being stacked up by their own allies. "Holt, let's get us some eggs," suggests Jake. "Yeah, Roedel, let's get us all the eggs they got," replies Holt. "And some ham."

Speaking of ham, skeptics may be displeased to note that Jewel gives a natural, measured and totally plausible performance as Sue Lee. The movie really is ham-free, except perhaps for Rhys Meyers, but Jewel's work as a hopeful young frontier woman is surprisingly adept, and Maguire's frustrated young rogue complements her beautifully. When she asks him whether he's a virgin, his swift retort is a boast -- that he has killed 15 men. The movie's many such revelatory moments are actually more powerful than its bloody (and utterly convincing) battles.

The movie is masterfully staged and photographed, the largest production ever shot on a Missouri location. Production design by Mark Friedberg and art direction by Steve Arnold have combined to re-create the towns, shanties and battlefields of the era. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes focuses on these settings -- and the lush wilderness around them -- to create a seamless illusion of reality.

Ride with the Devil may not be the most popular period drama out this season (Lee wanted to make a movie "with characters who have dirty fingernails" and has done so), and in some circles it may even be reviled. Nonetheless, this highly insightful film is strongly recommended for a nation that can use all the insight it can get.

Opens Dec. 17 at the Plaza Frontenac.

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