As Civil War dramas go, the unromanticized anti-epic "Ride With the Devil" is the polar opposite of "Gone With the Wind."
Bleak, deceptively simple and realistic, the battles are dirty, bloody and unwieldy, the heroes are reluctant young soldiers, fighting only because they feel compelled to do so.
It's a story of a handful of provisional soldiers in a part of the Civil War fought on the Western frontier of Missouri -- hundreds of miles from the definitive action -- where, in the absence of official battalions from the North or the South, neighbors have taken up arms against each other in hit-and-run guerrilla skirmishes that will ultimately decide nothing.
Based on Daniel Woodrell's novel "Woe to Live On" and directed by Ang Lee, who seems these days to specialize in nailing the moods and cultures of eras gone by ("Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm"), this isn't a large-scale war movie with massively staged battles, and it's not about the greater political and humanitarian issues of the war. It's about individual tragedies and personal triumphs in the face of horrible bloodshed.
Tobey Maguire (also in this week's "The Cider House Rules"), stars as the unassuming son of a Dutch immigrant, initially uninterested in the conflict until Northern-sympathizing Jayhawkers murder his father.
Over the next year he becomes a tentative soldier for the Southern-aligned Bushwhackers, defending his way of life and seeking revenge in a makeshift army, hiding out in forests and barns along side a motley crew of equally untrained neighbors (Skeet Ulrich), loyal blacks (Jeffrey Wright) and dangerous, loose-cannon soldiers of fortune (JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS).
There is no typical story arch here and no cinematically grandiose shots of cavalry thundering over hills in massive invasions or climactic death scenes. But the real nitty gritty of 19th Century warfare -- the brutality, the primitive violence of unsophisticated firearms -- is powerfully depicted on a soldier-by-soldier scale.
However, "Ride" is more about the way the war devastated simple Southerners, the futility of the fight they waged, and the personal journeys of this handful of men.
There's little in the way of excitement here (although the few spontaneous battle scenes do have spirit), but Lee's gentle stream approach is so natural that even the inevitable people-are-people bonding between initially racist Maguire and proud, quiet Wright ("Basquiat") feels unscripted and sincere. They find common ground in being thrust together into circumstances where neither of them feel they belong.
Just for the record, Wright gives the best, most subtly complex performance in the film as a black man fighting for the South out of loyalty to his friend (Ulrich, "Chill Factor"), rather than loyalty to the cause. He is the movie's conscience.
Although "Ride With the Devil" opens with a rather clumsy, expository history lesson, and it takes a few scenes to adjust to seeing these particular actors in a costume drama, Lee's rather contemporary casting is more effective than one might think, with the eloquent and well-written period dialogue (by "Ice Storm" scribe James Schamus) flowing with genuine weight from even Ulrich's Calvin Klein lips.
Even sweet-'n'-sexy folk-pop diva Jewel does a commendable job with her first acting role, as a war widow who helps hide the Bushwhackers on her in-law's property, becoming the object of desire for both Ulrich and Maguire.
There is one notable exception, however: Jonathan Rhys-Davies looks like he's had trouble shaking his "Velvet Goldmine" glam-rock persona. With his Fabio-esque mane, milky skin and sexpot pout, he couldn't be more out of place if he was added the film in post-production like Jar-Jar Binks.