Ang Lee’s “Ride With The Devil” may be one of the most overlooked films of the past 20 years. Perhaps right alongside Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.” Why this prolific and much-lauded filmmaker should have two staggeringly accomplished films so completely disregarded here in the States is a mystery to puzzle even the likes of Sherlock Holmes.
It seems Universal lost faith in “Devil” some time before its theatrical release. Why exactly this was is, today, mere speculation, but some reports suggest that the studio got cold feet over complaints regarding Jeffrey Wright’s character as a former slave fighting for the Confederate Bushwackers (even though, it turns out, that character was based on an actual person). But whatever the cause, Universal opened the film on a paltry 11 screens with almost no advertising. The film was, quite literally, thrown away. As for the American critics who did see the film, their disregard for this complex tale is beyond comprehension. Rarely does a film come along with such layered writing and performances.
Despite Lee’s insistence that “Critics praised the film for capturing the romanticism of the era through language,” there were those who claimed the dialogue to be “more suited to sermons and editorials than to everyday speech”. However, the eloquent speak is taken directly from Daniel Woodrell’s novel “Woe To Live On.” “So many of the things I read that were written by actual participants had a rich syntax. County histories, personal recollections, etc.,” Woodrell explains in his interview with Peter Bowen in Film In Focus, “The material just seemed to call for a Walter Scott-backwoods-Shakespeare-Twainian sort of mix, at least to me.” The language used in “Devil” is in direct opposition to the violent actions we are witness to. And in a film rich in conflict, the language not only adds to the period flavor, but is in perfect sync with the story’s overriding themes. The performances found here belie any notion that these “kids” are anything less than consummate actors. Even Jewel, not an actor by profession, is perfectly cast and delivers a startlingly authentic performance. This is rounded out by the likes of Jeffrey Wright, Tom Wilkenson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Simon Baker, James Caviezel, Mark Ruffalo and many others who deliver the period dialogue with such restraint and finesse, with such fierce casualness, that it adds genuine weight to the contradictory nature of the film and its characters.
“Devil” confronts a part of the Civil War rarely depicted in cinema: the tensions and violence between Confederate Bushwackers and abolitionist Jayhawkers culminating in the Lawrence, Kansas massacre. It is a revealing piece of history and Lee approaches it with his usual intimate sense of time and place. Very few films feel as authentic. James Schamus’ script is a meditation on loyalty and racism and the complex contradictions they bear. Jeffrey Wright’s staggeringly intricate performance as a former slave fighting for the Confederacy as well as his own honor is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking performances in the film. It embodies both the fearlessness of Schamus’ script and Lee’s immense talent as a storyteller of great subtlety and nuance.
Thanks to the adventurous and demanding folks at Criterion, Lee’s masterpiece comes to us, for the first time ever, in a new director’s cut. Thirteen minutes longer than the theatrical release and restructured to mirror Lee’s original intent, the film has gone from great to greater. And Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is both breathtaking and accurate to the film source. Some shots do appear soft, but that is as intended by the filmmakers. Other shots are so vivid you can almost feel the soft breeze blowing through the trees. The Director’s Cut was scanned on a Spirit 4k Datacine from the 35mm interpositive and original camera negative. The transfer was supervised by both Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes and is shown in the film’s proper aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
The soundtrack is offered here in 24-bit DTS HD lossless audio from the original stems and is a vast improvement over any previous home theater releases. Atmospherics are strong in the surrounds, while never intrusive. This is important as much of the film takes place in intimate settings with quiet dialogue between characters. But when it’s time to rumble, the soundtrack doesn’t hold back as bullets whiz by at lighting speed and the thunderous charge of 200 horses gives the LFE channel an appropriate workout.
Criterion’s extras are somewhat slimmer than on other releases, but what’s here is well worth having and paints a fairly comprehensive picture of both the film and its history. Two audio commentaries, one with Lee and Schamus, the other featuring Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg, are riveting, informative and entertaining. There is also a 14-minute video interview with star Jeffrey Wright that offers insight into why Wright was initially attracted to the film and why he now considers it his personal favorite role to date. In addition, there is also a 28 page booklet containing essays by critic Godfrey Cheshire and author Edward Leslie.
Here’s hoping this new Criterion release finds its way onto the screens of many a home theater across the globe, as well as here in Hollywood where development execs can get a glimpse at what their chosen medium is truly capable of. And let’s hope that “Ride With The Devil” finds the audience it was meant for and takes its rightful place as one of the single most compelling, thoughtful and authentically American films of the 20th century.