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The War Zone

Photo by John CliffordIN RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, DIRECTOR ANG LEE WANTS TO bring a complex perspective to the intertwined issues of honor, loyalty and race as they played out during the Civil War. To that end, he spends the first two-thirds of the film tracking the exploits of a couple of photogenic, lovable young white men -- Jake (Tobey Maguire) and Jack (Skeet Ulrich) -- who fight for the South as part of a renegade army known as the Bushwhackers. Though their posse is given to hunting the scalps of black folk and their white allies, and piling bodies in the streets as they celebrate, we're meant to empathize with these two. But Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, who based the script on Daniel Woodrell's novel, Woe To Live On, never make it quite clear why we should empathize, or would even want to. It never seems to have occurred to them that the greater horror of the Bushwhackers' ignoble cause -- fighting for the right to retain human beings as property -- might simply outweigh their attempt.

Ride With the Devil opens with a wedding, but the celebration is dampened by talk of impending war. It's not long before Jake and Jack are swept into guerrilla warfare. As they slink along back roads and take aim at the Jayhawkers (their anti-slavery counterparts), the Bushwhackers engage in bloody skirmishes, endure in-group bickering and cling to the diminishing hope that the South will triumph. At the center of the chaos, childhood friends Jake and Jack fight side by side, their bonding only interrupted when Jack falls for a horny Southern widow, Sue Lee (played with surprising effectiveness by Jewel). Throughout, director Lee prods us to cry for the Bushwhackers, share in their jokes and root for Jack to get the girl. It's not a totally failed effort: The film is beautifully shot and filled with fine performances -- particularly those of Jeffrey Wright as Holt, a sort-of-free-but-not slave who's fighting for the South, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a comely, psycho-bitch with a gun and rock-star attitude. But it's only near the end, when Holt is allowed to blossom from a symbol into a human being, and gives a short but powerful speech on loss and freedom that the film finally finds its soul. By then, it's too late.

Although much of Ride With the Devil is intent on retrieving the humanity of a group that foreshadows today's racist militias, far more interesting is the near parallel no-man's land occupied by Holt and Jake. The son of German immigrants, Jake is looked upon suspiciously by the "real" American boys; he has to prove he's more of a redneck than they are to stay in their good graces. One of the film's nicer touches is that he's the only member of his ragtag outfit who can read or write (a nod to the immigrant desire for self-improvement), making him invaluable to his mock army. He fights almost more to fit in than out of any real belief in the politics of the day. Holt, who battles alongside the man who bought him and made a gift of his freedom (with strings attached), is trapped inside conflicting obligations and agendas. He fights for a side that would deny him his rights as a man because he has much to lose if he doesn't. His individual freedom is contingent on a larger self-defeat. These gnarled dilemmas, however, seem beyond Lee and Schamus. Unraveling them would mean looking at all these characters in a more sophisticated political context, one in which the atrocities of slavery are foregrounded and slapped right up against the film's overhauled view of its Southern warriors. It would mean granting Holt his voice in the first act, not the last, and surrounding Jake's nuanced evolution and newly sparked conscience with more complicated depictions of the other white men -- not just framing him with psychos and fledgling saints. Most importantly, it would mean not diminishing justified moral outrage for the sake of layered perspectives. Those differences might have shifted the film from being a well-crafted but problematic piece of entertainment to one that both grasps and truly grapples with its issues. In the end, we're asked to not let the odiousness of the Bushwhackers' cause taint our perspective on the individual men. But how could it not? Likable, even good, men who commit monstrous deeds are judged accordingly -- no matter how many cooing babies they rock to sleep when no one is watching.

RIDE WITH THE DEVIL | Directed by ANG LEE | Written by JAMES SCHAMUS | Based on the novel Woe To Live On, by DANIEL WOODRELL | Produced by TED HOPE, ROBERT F. COLESBERRY and SCHAMUS | Released by USA Films | At Cineplex Odeon Century Plaza, Beverly Connection, Mann Criterion 6