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Ride With the Devil: Ang Lee's Director's Cut -- Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // April 27, 2010
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 23, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Images in this review do not indicate the quality of the Blu-ray reviewed here.

"Battles and armies, it's all back east; down here in Missouri, you just have the people to fight ya".

If Kurosawa's Kagemusha exists as an insightful dress rehearsal for his work on Ran, then it's safe to look at Ride With the Devil as Ang Lee's preparatory jumpstart on Brokeback Mountain. His portrait of the Missouri Bushwhackers during the Civil War takes an outlook on chemistry between rough-and-rugged men, though not of a sexual nature as the story between Ennis and Jack Twist, while also harnessing cinematographer Frederick Elmes' talented eye to capture sweeping mountainous vistas and intricate 1800s reconstruction. On top of that, Lee also managed to be something of a prophetic filmmaker when he assembled his cast; along with capturing Tobey Maguire before his skyrocket to fame in the Spider-man franchise, Jim Caviezel pre-Passion of the Christ, and Simon Baker before his ascent as a sturdy leading man in both television ("The Mentalist") and film (Land of the Dead), he also grabs Syriana show-stealer Jeffrey Wright in a sensational turn as Daniel Holt, a black man fighting "against the North".

I mention these points first because they're the successes of Ride With the Devil, which gallops forth as an aesthetically researched and alluring film that drags at times due to overwrought pacing and intentionally downplayed character attitudes. Lee's work with Daniel Woodrell's novel, "Woe to Live On", still holds a charisma that's undeniable. He takes young, fresh actors and transforms them into weathered guerrilla-style militia fighting America's great Civil War without the kind of heroic, steady spirit that we're used to hearing, instead merely concocting men of the South that are conflicted with the changing of times. Some, such as Maguire's Dutchman Jake Roedel, start a slow change into seeing a world without the ownership of other human beings; others, including Jake's buddy Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), stay headstrong for the South's cause. All of them keep touch-and-go allegiance as they meet up with loyalist bands here and there, but it's mostly out of survival and towards a fearful rivalry with Kansas "Jayhawkers" -- and fear of what'll happen if they elect to stray from their heritage's ways.

Slavery's not a predominant issue for the story to analyze and dissect, but more of the generalized fuel that we rarely, if ever, see tangibly shown while following the Bushwhackers from location to location. Most of Ride With the Devil aims to get its audience so caught up in bare-knuckle guerrilla skirmishes that we purposefully forget about the overlying conflict behind the battles, opting against obvious critiques for a more humanized outlook on the situation through the eyes of simply-driven, loyal Southerners. A textual preface at the beginning of the story informs us that taking sides in this war is almost as dangerous, if not more so, than taking a neutral stance. Even when we see the ugly side of things, it's more just to illustrate how blindly the South's men -- including the devious Pitt Mackeson, played with furious abandon in an early role from Jonathan Rhys Meyers -- fumed and flailed with senseless aggression. We're here to absorb the visceral conflict between the Jayhawkers and the Bushwhackers and see the neutral ground, not necessarily to comprehend their respective causes.

That hostility generates an explosive beginning to Ride With the Devil, full of gunfire and war-driven posturing that's given profound legitimacy by Lee's in-tune production crew. At we follow Jack and Jake through their interconnections and disconnections with the Southern army, they get in plenty of violent scrapes that claim the limbs and liberties of the boys -- a finger here, a hole in the mouth there, gangrene ever present. Slick, comfortable photography of the shootouts, especially one massive throwdown taking place at a Southern woman's home, ensnares electricity that speaks well to Ang Lee's capacity to piece together a dense action sequence. A few more of these skirmishes thunder into the picture, and all of them are surprisingly competent in the dramatic director's eyes -- pulled back to allow viewing of the activity, authentically harsh, and indicative of the swirl of fear and anger stirring within all of the soldiers. They're not heroes, only desperate men fighting for a side of the war with little keeping them going -- illustrated in a great moment around a campfire where Jake Roedel reads a letter from a stolen mail bag, allowing them to reflect on good soil and mothers.

Eventually, Ang Lee's film reaches a transition point where "hibernation", a time when four of the Southern men find a spot for refuge at winter, takes place of the violence as they camp in a confined, dank foxhole they construct near a Southern supporter's home. It's here that the film's expressive force as a character piece slowly peaks, as the interactions between Jack, Jake, George Clyde (Simon Baker) and "his" black man Daniel Holt (Wright) illustrate the exhausted confusion stirring inside each of them -- more as individuals, though the weight of their clouded "cause" draws marked focus. Their stature as men, as well as Holt's place as their black ally, becomes chiefly prevalent when Sue Lee Shelly (Jewel), a plain but pretty daughter of the nearby Southern supporter, generates a formulaic mate-driven conflict between the men. Jewel commands enough attention as Sue Lee, though her fresh talent as an actress doesn't legitimize her profuse flip-flopping of mates throughout -- especially leading to revelations in the story involving marriage and children.

Around their foxhole and amid the three men's banter, which mostly bubbles in a highly foreseeable fashion around Sue Lee, we begin to really dig into Daniel Holt -- inspired by John Noland, a free black. Easily the key thought-provoking piece to the narrative as a insightful puzzle, we watch as Holt develops real relationships with these Southern soldiers during the war -- especially the highly evocative link between he and Jake. The execution of his nuanced internal development, as well as the effect he has on his comrades, begs for our assertive attention. In another actor's hold, his character, and the situation driving his eventual cathartic grip on his freedom, could've been questionable; however, Jeffrey Wright's immense talent brims with multifaceted pain, saying little in actual words but speaking volumes through his reactions with the Bushwhackers. His presence dominates that of the other men -- whom we clearly see now as little more than boys asked to grow up rather quickly -- with a deeper, tormented side that we see churn, fold, and develop. And yes, we eventually see his character take on an expected grasp on freedom, but in sincere fashion and presenting fine chemistry with Maguire.

Ride With the Devil gathers together these convincing elements of the Civil War's non-romantic nebulous and attempts a raw, emergent vigor with its young actors, and Ang Lee mostly achieves that as the narrative assuredly rolls forward to the reconstruction of the Bushwhackers' wrathful storm on Lawrence, Kansas. He gives us excitement, some humor through banter between the boys, a few shreds of thought with Daniel Holt's presence, and an overlying sense of dramatic poise in offering this portrait of Missouri Bushwhackers -- though, at times, it makes for low amounts of exposition that slow the picture down to a deliberate pace. What he neglects to realize is that their authentically oblique nature also weighs the film's tempo, at time creating a knowingly rigid trek through the lives of these men, even though they're still appealing enough to demand our vested interest. Their war, not the grand battles depicted in history books, is one of stirring, ill-defined directions that leave them plainly trying to figure out exactly what they're fighting for -- or if, deep down, they're fighting for anything in particular.

Ang Lee's Director's Cut:

Ride With the Devil originally arrived in theaters with a runtime of 138 minutes, yet it's not the exact cut Ang Lee had in mind for his Civil War picture. His director's cut actually lasts roughly 10 minutes longer at a runtime of 148 minutes, but it shouldn't be assumed that a few chunks of footage are just dropped in here and there to fill in gaps. Ang Lee has also rearranged a few sequences to a minor degree, and snipped out a few elements -- though the eliminations are exceedingly minor. Since the film was aimed at being a spectacle summer picture, and since Lee and his editor needed to use every ounce of fast-paced activity in order to live up to this desire, most of the action-based sequences remain unchanged due to the fact that they likely crammed in all of his favored action footage into the theatrical cut. Instead, he's added flesh to malnourished characters and given the already-strong ones even more substance for his preferred cut, though the overall fabric of the picture hasn't changed.

Keen on avoiding spoilers? Stop here.

The first addition involves the minuscule character Mark Ruffalo plays in the picture, Alf Bowman, who has only two involvements in the theatrical cut -- once as a strung-up Union officer who's released as a messenger of sorts, then later mentioned amid conversation as the man who veered from that path and murdered Jake Roedel's father. Here, he's involved in the wedding scene at the beginning of the movie, where the Southern folks are sitting around and stiff idle chatter sparks about the Jayhawkers. The material's not earth-shattering, but it a) gives us a bit more of a precursor to what happens with Jake and Jack, b) plants Mark Ruffalo's character in our eyesight earlier, and c) actually gives the character more of an integral purpose to the story.

Another added sequence arrives when the Bushwhackers politely impose on the home of two Southern women for a meal, which leads in to the film's first large battle. In Ang Lee's new (original) cut, she also has a son who's lost his leg and has holed up the outside barn. Skeet Ulrich's character pulls his gun on him and essentially offers to take his life, if the amputee wishes for it, while also sparking him to do work around the farm for his mother. Like many alterations in this cut, it doesn't change the way the story plays out -- but it does add to Jack Bull's nature a bit, giving him both an added spark of force, helpfulness, respect, and intrigue. It also adds a bit of imagery about revolving around the "real" war being hell, focusing on how the boy lost his leg to a cannon.

Along the way, a few other very minor additions are incorporated that need less explanation, such as a moment where the Bushwhackers beat a Union soldier and when Jake and Daniel Holt go into a home where a man's lying dead in a chair. Jake's been to the house, which adds a bit of reflection on life before the war. Lee also seems to have reincorporated a few moments where he lets the camera linger longer on beautiful shots, vistas and dense foliage captures. Along the way, he also snipped out a sequence where Jake Roedel writes a letter explaining the Bushwhackers' tactic in dressing in Union clothing as a guerrilla tactic, while also saying that they still "wear the clothes" of the Missouri guerrilla fighters. Other sequences have also been mildly rearranged, such as the comic relief moment where Jake and Jack discuss the "positives" of Jake losing his pinky. And there's a small amount of added footage involving Jake and Sue Lee as she breastfeeds late in the film.

Finally, there are several elements that have been changed in the Bushwhackers' attack on Lawrence, Kansas -- namely more expansive shots of the heart-rending damage caused to the town. A lot of production elements went into creating the damage, and these reintegrated shots simply beef up the fiery chaos a healthy degree. Other bits are integrated that give the town a little more of a dystopian feel -- such as a woman who continues to read a book amid the pillaging of the defenseless town. But it's not just a heap of fire, flying wood, and lamenting citizens that's been integrated; Simon Baker also shares one of the more poignant, yet slightly awkward, moments in the director's cut where he builds a fleeting relationship with a Dutchman in the town. Geoge Clyde drinks whisky with the Dutchman after the man makes what can be interpreted as a plea for his life in exchange for the liquor. Clyde then goes on to kill the Dutchman as he gets back on his horse right before the invasion ends, emphasizing even this charismatic man's crumbling sanity. Also integrated is a young boy who watches the death and destruction from one of the officers, then later grabs a pistol and kills said officer as he lies semi-dead.

Spoiler avoiders can look up now.

General impression of the director's cut is positive, besting the original cut with more substantial and intriguing character moments, though it arrives at the same location by way of a slightly more complex path. Most sequences in Ride With the Devil are left completely alone. The entire space of time from when the boys begin hibernating and meet Sue Lee to when they leave seems to be status quo, while, as mentioned earlier, just about every action-based sequence remains in-tact as seen in theaters -- since it's assumed Universal wanted to cram in every ounce of vivaciousness it possesses through the horse-backed and pistol-wielding sequences. However, the additions incorporated with the characters are welcome, intriguing and -- in several cases, especially with Alf Bowman -- necessary. It's a better film because of it.

The Blu-ray:

The Criterion Collection have presented Ang Lee's director's cut of Ride With the Devil on Blu-ray in their modus operandi packaging: clear case, with fitting artwork both inside and outside. Inside, a Booklet carries Cast/Crew information, a description of the process utilized for the transfer, and three essays -- "Apocalypse Then" and "Bleeding Kansas, Marauding Missouri" by Godfrey Cheshire, and "Quantrill and his Raiders" by Edward Leslie.

Video and Audio:

Ang Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes oversaw this treatment for Ride With the Devil, scanned through a Spirit 4K Datacine from the original interpositive and camera negative elements, which arrives framed in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Comparing this presentation to Universal's standard-definition offering from 2002 is an immensely enlightening experience; the original transfer carries horribly pink skin tones, a dusty, weathered disposition throughout, stretched facial anomalies, and generally dissatisfying colors. Suffice to say that every single one of these elements have been drastically improved upon, as this immensely satisfying AVC encode provides skin tones and palette shifts that advance leaps and bounds beyond the look of its predecessor.

In comparison, it's a stunner. Taking the film's overall look in high-definition into account, standing on its own, the level of detail, the 24fps flow, and the attenuated focus of the image satisfies -- with a few points worth taking into consideration. Though the colors are far, far more accurate in the Missouri / Kansas locations, it's worth taking a closer look at the saturation of the greenery. The coloring's a shade on the robust side, and at times swallows up elements in the environment that lean more towards brownish earthen tones in the DVD. Also, a few darker scenes do reveal a bit of heavy grain in the depths. Still, since this transfer's approved by the director and the photographer, these are clearly their decisive moves. Through a distortion-free veil of very satisfying film grain and a level of both detail and contrast competence befitting the Criterion label, we're working with a great-looking disc here.

Combining the original stems and new elements remastered at 24-bit, this DTS HD Master Audio track offers an impressively robust experience with only a few caveats. Billowing fire bloats across the stage with deep lows and pleasing mid-range expansions, while gunfire pierces across the stage. Several nature-based sound elements rush and flutter to the rears, along with the galloping of hooves and musical cues, while the lines of dialogue remain properly rich through throaty vocal elements. A few sound elements do fall a bit flat, such as the shattering of boards in one sequence in particular and a few distanced gunshot sounds scattered throughout, and one or two points that seem like they should have surrounding elements neglects to envelop the audience. But, mostly, the balance between ravaging bass elements through the warfare, high-ranged clarity with timely verbal texture, and the range of everything in between, Ride With the Devil sounds great. Optional English subtitles are available.

Special Features:

Two Feature-Length Commentaries:
First up, director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus give us their insights, which range from somewhat stock comments that you'd expect to more in-depth scoops from the material. They discuss the time-period and how history books present the larger battles more than the somewhat footnoted Bushwhackers and the Missouri / Kansas skirmishes, as well as a few differences between the film and the book, yet they also discuss a few unexpected moments -- how Jake Roedel's father wasn't actually his father figure, how Ang Lee utilizes Tobey Maguire as an underdog and how that dynamic would've been different with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio in the role, and how the warfare depicted in the film still caries weight during a time when that skirmish warfare is being utilized in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The second commentary brings in Fred Elms, Drew Kunin, and production designer Mark Friedberg, where they lay down a bit of play-by-play commentary with little shots of insight and anecdotes scatter all over. They talk in spats about how they produced specific items, where they constructed them, and how they researched what they needed to replicate in the film, while also diving into a few secondary thought processes -- putting together that Rhys Meyers is an boundless killer and the "crazy" member of the gang-like Bushwhackers, the necessity for horse barns in the time, the somewhat sympathetic point-of-view of a Bushwhacker and how Rhys Meyers almost seems flirtatious as he taunts Jake Roedel. The trio of filmmakers reflect on some of Ang's directorial decisions and how he used his sources, especially book "The Devil Knows How To Ride", as a touchstone for accuracy on the Lawrence, Kansas raid, how they recorded several different firearms, and constructing the sets so that they look "lived in".

Interview with Jeffrey Wright (14:45, HD AVC):
Jeffrey Wright sits down for this interview, recorded specifically for The Criterion Collection in 2010, and delves into his experience in shooting this film -- which he recalls "vividly". He discusses how this became his first role where he didn't have to audition first, how he trusted Ang Lee's decision based on the look in his eyes, the process in how he developed a special rapport with Simon Baker and how the cast prepped for the experience. He ties in a bit of history, lightly bringing up John Noland without discussing the "controversy" behind, and ties in a bit of his family history as well. It's a very good chat, laid back and free of pretense, where Wright does get in a very sly jab at the fumbled way the picture was handled upon its release.

Final Thoughts:

Ride With the Devil isn't Ang Lee's magnum opus, a distinction that more befits either Lust, Caution or Brokeback Mountain. However, his depiction of Missouri's Civil War certainly exists as the director's most overlooked piece of work, a competently directed and energetic trek through the lives of the South's Bushwhackers. There's no getting around the fact that a few elements weigh down the picture, most prevalently pacing issues, but his composure in presenting the thought around allegiance and honor in a time where the country's torn apart might surprise with its authenticity and capability to make one think. Ang Lee's original vision of the picture arrives from The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray with lustrous audiovisual elements reliably in tow, as well as a pair of commentaries and an interview with Jeffrey Wright that's certainly worth a listen, which earns this one a very sturdy Recommendation.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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