A violent and passionate Western, Ang Lee’s 1999 Ride with the Devil wasn’t exactly what the Skeet Ulrich or Jewel fans were expecting (never mind followers of a pre-Spidey Tobey Maguire). In the space of mere days—barely a week—the movie was gone from American theaters, a casualty of Universal’s financial woes and a wave of head-scratching.
Criterion’s freshly expanded director’s cut reveals the effort for what it still is: a lush, thoughtful midpoint between the filmmaker’s intensely personal The Ice Storm (1997) and epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The extra ten minutes of material (nothing major) further shade what was already a complex and upsetting tale, fittingly set in Civil War--era Missouri, a Northern state with slaves. Childhood friends Jack Bull (Ulrich) and Jake (Maguire) become irregular “bushwhackers,” homegrown terrorists living and fighting in the woods and resistant to the war in Virginia. (This story was never going to be an easy sell.)
The movie is most notable for a richly troubled turn by Jeffrey Wright as emancipated slave Daniel Holt. Easy racism courses through the dialogue of even our heroes; Wright, in a post-Obama video interview, recalls hurting over some moments in the script. He also declares the role the most fulfilling of his film career.—Joshua Rothkopf
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