Hands down, this is the best Civil War movie since Glory. Ride with the Devil is captivating from the opening scene and its eclectic cast is shockingly powerful. Don't worry about Jewel ruining anything; she convincingly makes the transition from pop star to actress, and Jeffrey Wright's (Basquiat, Celebrity) performance of a former slave fighting for the Confederacy is unprecedented and chillingly realistic. I have no clue what they were thinking with such a misleading title -- Ride with the Devil isn't some supernatural, special effects-laden, cheesy line-filled, end-of-the-millennium dud; it's a movie about a perspective of American history rarely talked about in classrooms across the country. The plot sympathizes with the ideals of the Confederate bushwhackers fighting a guerilla-style war against the Union Jay Hawks- and to its credit; it almost makes you believe in their cause.
Our protagonist is Jake Roedel, (Tobey Maguire -- The Ice Storm) a young Missouri-raised son of a poor Dutch immigrant, and he along with his child hood buddy Jack Bull Chiles, the son of a Missouri plantation owner, (Skeet Ulrich -- As Good As It Gets, Chill Factor) join up as bushwhackers when their homes and families are seized by Union soldiers. They both become skilled gunmen and execute daring raids on Union soldiers and sympathizers. By 1862, their unit, headed by Black John (James Caviezel), includes George Clyde (Simon Baker) and Clyde's loyal former slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright). With a harsh winter looming, the Bushwhackers must disperse and find shelter. Several members hole up in a hidden hillside dugout. While in hiding, their food and supplies are provided by the young widow Sue Lee (Jewel). When casualties are taken from a Jay Hawk surprise attack the group is splintered and Jake and Holt are united as soldiers in solidarity. As the war rages on, most of their remaining Bushwhacker compatriots are either dead or lost on the Southern cause, so Jake and Holt must decide whether to keep the fight alive or flee west.
The production of the film is outstanding; the settings, costumes, imagery, and soundtrack add a strong dose of reality to the characters. The gunfights are as exciting as any war movie I've seen, and the dialogue is also vintage mid-1800s Southern jargon, which Ulrich pulls off surprisingly well. The real gold nugget of the film however is Jeffrey Wright's character: Daniel Holt is a Southern black man fighting against Northerners. In principle, he's killing those who are fighting for the freedom of his people. This role has rarely been touched, if ever, in modern filmmaking, however the reality of the situation is that there actually were a number of black Southerners who fought for the Confederacy, many of whom thought that it would lead to better treatment after the war. Throughout the film Holt's emotions are expectedly hidden but when he reveals some inner demons the film is at its peak.
Believe me, I can understand why you wouldn't want to see it. Jewel, Skeet Ulrich, and nobody else you've ever heard of. It's sounds hard to take seriously, right? Every once in a while a good one comes along against the odds and that's the case here. Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility) has done a fantastic job and this film is really worth watching, even at two hours and ten minutes. I still haven't figured out what Ride with the Devil means exactly, but it would be a travesty if a lame title kept this one from being a real success.
Jewel: Diamond in the rough.