Ride With The Devil
Ang Lee’s such a consistent, frustrating mediocrity. His films are all very almost. It’s tricky to pinpoint what makes each second-rate, but invariably, when the closing credits roll, the predominant emotion is dissatisfaction. Teamed as he is with uber-scholar and producer James Schamus, Lee’s non-blockbusters feature scholarly but misguided attention to period detail of clothing, transportation, mise-en-scène. In the midst of this accuracy will emerge jarring incongruities that wreck the gestalt. A gesture, casting in a minor role, an actor’s vanity pushing aside the character—something goes awry and the spell is broken, never to regain whatever slight power it might have achieved. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is, of course, Lee’s most fully realized work. Maybe because it’s a genre piece, Lee vested for real in the joys of genre, instead of applying his piercingly middlebrow sensibilities to stories that seem beyond his skillset.
But now the Criterion Collection has released one of his most intriguing failures. Among the aspects that so intrigue is how apparent the process of that failure is, and how clear the cause. Ride With the Devil’s spell is broken pretty early, due to the casting of Jewel as a homespun prairie princess. Jewel comes off about as homespun as Tobey Maguire, woefully miscast as a Missouri boy who sides with the South in the Civil War. Already, we got a tricky proposition here, rooting for the Rebs, what with that pesky slavery ´n´ all. Lee attempts to avoid slavery altogether by almost never showing a black person. The one black person we do see is Jeffrey Wright, a gifted, understated classical-seeming performer, a genuine star. But he has to underplay (he is a slave, after all) to the second-raters surrounding him. Foremost among them being Simon Baker, who found his career niche and proper level starring in The Mentalist. Baker, like Jewel and Tobey Maguire and poor Skeet Ulrich and everybody else in the picture, save Wright, can never quite get their Southern or Missouri accents to sound the same from one scene to the next. Nothing is quite so off-putting to the native Southerners in the audience, like me. The most hilarious groping after southern speech patterns emerges from the mouth of the future King Henry VIII himself, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers; though Rhys-Meyers does smolder with what appears to be some authentic War-Between-the-States hostility, and rides better than anyone else in the cast.
The film’s worth putting up with, to a point, because there’s such a dearth of adult westerns, and Lee can mount a credible horseback action sequence. A couple of them, especially the invasion by mounted irregulars of Lawrence, Kansas, are breathtaking. When Lee’s not indulging in high camp—like Maguire’s shotgun wedding to Jewel and their truly painful wedding night scene—he allows the atmosphere to nourish the violence, and the violence is damn entertaining.
As the film progresses, the real problem emerges. The story is whittled down to three characters, and Jeffrey Wright emerges as the most compelling by far. He takes over the third act, and makes the film worth watching. But the instant of Wright’s climatic departure—the moment that could have shown that Lee knew how to be true to the soul of his material—is ruined, devastated, grossly shat upon by Lee’s toadying to Hollywood politics. Maguire’s supposed to be the star of this tale, and Wright’s taken the picture from him. So, just as we’re about to be deeply moved by Wright, Lee cuts to a ghastly full-screen close-up of Maguire. And holds it and holds it and holds it until Wright is long gone. There’s no reason for that shot. Except that Maguire clearly had the post-production clout to ruin the picture in the service of his own vanity. I had hoped that in Criterion’s director’s cut Lee would put things right, and that Devil would end as it should. But no, Lee reverted to the dupe of the system he’s so happy to be, and Devil’s all the poorer for it.
That said, the film is beautifully shot, and, if you like period pieces, well costumed. The character actors outshine the stars, and the violence is first-rate.