Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil is a very challenging film. While not as gripping or well-filmed as John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence or The Searcher's, Lee's Ride with the Devil uses the Western as did Ford and so many others before him, to chart the aftermath of the Civil War. Lee offers a disconcerting critique of contemporary (neo)liberalism, disconcerting if you consider yourself a liberal (as opposed to, say, a Communist or Socialist). The film rather oddly channels the fate of liberalism in relation to the "bad" German. While German immigrant characters in the film are assumed to be uniformly pro-Unionist, the central character in the film is a German who identifies with the South and fight as an "irregular," a guerrilla bushwhacker. Because the guerillas are not soldiers, they are treated by the Union army, when captured, as "non-combatants" rather than as prisoners-of-war. But their opposite number is the jayhawkers who go around burning homes of Southerners and murdering their owners. Ride with the Devil has a familiar revenge plot akin to Ford's The Searchers, only in this case the Indian raiders are replcaed by Union irregular raiders: a teenage boy sees his father murdered and runs off with his friend to join the guerillas. We hear of other atrocities reported by the Southerners committed by the Union army. Things get pretty strange when the guerillas dress as Union troops to ambush other Union troops and act like the murderous thugs they oppose. Even as the moral difference between the violence on screen and the violence reported off screen begins to all but disappear, we are supposed to root for the Southern characters. When Union troops catch up with the guerillas when they stay in a Southern woman's house to rest up, we see a beautiful shot of trees waving in the wind and then a a shadow crossing over them just before we see Toby McGuire from the back in medium close up, sitting on the porch as lookout, when a gun click as it is put to his head. The Union soldiers then get shot down by the guerillas inside just before they are going to murder McGuire, but manage to shoot off one of his pinky fingers in the process. During the fight, the guerilla leader asks the Union leader if they Union soldiers kill women and arranges for the two women in the house to escape. Before the bushwhackers commit the major atrocity of the film, they are shot like Indians in so many Westerns, from below as they gathers across the ridge of a hill. The unresponsive union soldiers seem dim-witted, and little time is spent showing their massacre. A new distinction between good guerillas and crazy guerrillas has already begun to kick in, with McGuire and an ex-slave becoming friends and the supposed moral center of the film. They stop one the "bad" guy of the film from murdering one person. But the film really has no moral center. McGuire ends up enslaved by marriage and goes West, where he and the ex-slave part company. What emerges is a view of American history as discomfiting to liberals as D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and GOne with the Wind are comforting to Southern racists. To identify with McGuire's character is to identify with a Southerner who is a bad German (he is called Dutchy by his friends and not regarded by them as a real Southerner), "bad" because he fights on the wrong side. Critics of American exceptionalism tend to appeal to some normal liberal democracy in their critiques of American imperialism. Lee's film, which is as formally irregular , especially in its editing, as it is in its plot, shows how retarded that appeal is.
I don't think what Lee does is conscious or deliberate, necessarily. I think the film's tonal shifts, weird editing at points (Jewel's breast feeding, for example), the meandering and undermotivated plot (how do the four guys end up digging that hole of a home in the earth? What happened to everyone else? How do they reunite with everyone else?) At one point during the hole in the earth period, a character says Winter is ending, but then we see more shots with snow in them. We also expect to see more of Ruffalo after hearing he killed McGuire's father, just as we expect the shoot out with Meyers (I always love that guy--he just stands there and already looks totally over the top). The bit about the kid who does shoot the drunken guy who killed his father also feels off. It's also inexplicable that the other guy having breakfast pulls his rifle on Meyers or that Meyers has a reputation for being bad at that point. Another tonal oddity is the Henry V's St. Crispian's Day motivational speech the Confederate leader gives before the attack on Lawrence. The shot of McGuire and the ex-slave not applauding is utterly conventional, and their silence seems ineffectual since they join in the attack. When we get to the final encounter between McGuire and Meyers, Meyers doesn't really seem all that bad. A bushwhacker had already said going to Lawrence was suicidal, and now Meyers is just doing the same kind of thing only with his death a more certain outcome. McGuire's missing finger--it was a good finger he says--that isn't missed figures the irregularities of hte film. The film sticks with you after you see it. You can't quite digest it.