There are times in Ride With the Devil, director Ang Lee’s bloody but dramatically anemic depiction of the American Civil War as fought by boys without uniforms, when it’s hard to tell whose side is which. And the confusion is intentional.
The battles Lee stages are intimate clashes waged by neighbors on the Kansas-Missouri border, far from official Union and Confederate military campaigns; he sees war as philosophical debate, following in the big footprints made by Ken Burns in his epic documentary The Civil War and Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. In this telling, all men are didactically created equal: The son of a poor German immigrant (Tobey Maguire) is equal to the son of a rich plantation owner (Skeet Ulrich), who in turn finds his equal in a former slave (Jeffrey Wright) when all three fight on the side of the pro-Southern ”Bushwhackers.”
Ride With the Devil—based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On and adapted by James Schamus—is, like Lee’s The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility before it, an elegant film. It’s also, unlike them, an oddly unengaging one, not because of any weak performances (even crooning poetess Jewel acquits herself pleasantly in her film debut), but because the waxy yellow buildup of earnest tastefulness (the curse of the Burns school of history) seals off every character from our access. These Americans aren’t action figures; they’re collectible figurines. C+