number five?

by Suw on April 10, 2003

I don’t much like war. And I don’t much like war flicks. I’m particularly unfond of that kind of stressed, nervy feeling I get when I watch violent flicks, so I was a little apprehensive about watching Ride with the Devil. It was recommended to me by a couple of friends, and it does feature the inimitable Tobey Maguire, and as I’m busy at the moment exploring his back catalogue I thought what the hell, I’ll give it a go, see what gives.
And what does give? Well… For much of the film I was curled up foetus-like in my chair, not really sure if I was enjoying myself or not. There’s shooting. There’s death. There’s a really grim scene where a guy gets shot through the cheeks and later on, when he takes a swig of liquor he kinda coughs and it spurts out the bullet hole. I’m cringing just thinking of it.
But in the end, this isn’t really a film about war, although the American Civil War features prominently. It’s not really about the Bushwhackers and the Jayhawkers. It’s also not really about two southern childhood friends who join up as horsemen to fight the Northern Unionists.
It’s about the slow dawning of realisation that what you thought was a noble cause was in fact a savage one, and that loyalty to your childhood friends and adherence to what you thought were your principles is in fact a betrayal of your true self. And that, like it or not, good can happen to you no matter how fast you try to run from it.
This is a majestic film. It draws you in, no matter how hard you try not to become involved (for surely sticky ends are going to be met, and I’m not a fan of sticky ends). Maguire is, as usual sublime. I keep using this word when I talk about his acting, but really it’s not so much the superlative adjective when used to describe Maguire, in fact, it barely does him justice. His presence on screen is astoundingly intense, it’s awe-inspiring. He carries the story in his eyes, where other actors rely on their lines.
But my admiration for Maguire aside, this is a great film. The scenery is beautiful, the script captivating, the story brutally absorbing. War isn’t portrayed here as organised – this is an ad hoc band of men fighting for as many reasons as there are bullets. Some, like Jake Roedel (Maguire), fight because they feel it is their duty, some fight because they simply like killing, some like Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) because they feel they have no choice. But with the bloody sacking of the Kansas town of Lawrence, both Roedel and Holt are forced to confront the fact that what they thought they were fighting for is nothing more than a mirage – they are instead fighting for men and principles they despise.
In Holt’s case, as a black slave whose bond was paid by his friend George, it’s the realisation that only George’s death can bring him true freedom. With George alive the debt of gratitude is as much a tie as slavery was – the only reason he’s not scalped along with the other blacks that the Bushwhackers come across is because he is ‘George’s nigger’. In order to pay back his debt of gratitude he must fight by George’s side even though he’s fighting for people who would gladly kill him themselves, let alone watch him die.
For Roedel, on the other hand, it’s a longer journey. He slowly comes to realise that what he is fighting for is not his way of life, nor is it to prove that he is a ‘true’ southerner. Always branded a ‘Dutchie’, Roedel can never truly become a Bushwhacker – his father and all the other ‘Dutchies’ are Unionists and that fact will always put Roedel on the defensive. This is especially true after he takes pity on a Unionist captive, arranging for him to be released in order to attempt to organise an exchange of prisoners. Instead the Unionist rides straight to Roedel’s Unionist father’s house and brutally murders him as revenge for his son’s political betrayal. Roedel is made aware later on that he was, in fact, responsible for his own father’s death. (Peter Parker, anyone?).
That kinda of reassessment of values in the face of tragedy is a theme that runs through Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm as well, which also features Maguire and about which also I feel simultaneously drawn in and shut out.
Part of the reason I felt slightly barred from full emotional participation in Ride with the Devil was, I have to admit, that I couldn’t entirely understand every word uttered by Maguire and his cohorts. You don’t get too many strong southern drawls in Reading and occasionally I just couldn’t understand what they were saying. Partly this is cos I don’t have a DVD player, so it’s all done with mirrors and cunning artifice (i.e. my computer and slightly crappy speakers).
That aside, I’ll be watching Ride with the Devil again. And the Ice Storm. If nothing else, I want to more understand these films – there’s enough character motivation and development in there to keep me analysing for months to come. And that is my favourite hobby right now, after all.
Oh, and in case you're wondering why number five – this is the fifth Maguire film I've seen in the last three weeks.

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