Ride with the Devil is one of those curiously rare creatures in cinema: a movie about the American Civil War. Given its inherent dramatic possibilities (sibling rivalry writ large), there's been surprisingly few great films that have dealt with the conflict. Focusing on a little-known front of the Civil War on the Kansas-Missouri border, Devil is an immaculately constructed period piece; Ang Lee's direction is as assured and precise as ever, and the numerous battle scenes are simultaneously exciting and horrifying. There's a nicely turned antiqueness to the dialogue and a strong authenticity in its attention to the detail of the period. Like The Ice Storm, it looks at how the ties of friend and family are tested and reformed by a society in uproar.
Perhaps too authentic; what prevents the film from rising above the merely good to the excellent is the contrast between the believable grit of its setting and the too-modern style of its actors. Tobey Maguire as Dutchy, an immigrant German, tries his hardest to give a great performance, but his apple pie looks, so perfect in movies like Pleasantville and Cider House Rules set in mid-century America, just look silly with the long hair and whiskers of a bushwhacker. Skeet Ulrich and (especially) Jonathan Rhys-Meyers are even more ridiculously out of place, rejects from a casting call for Young Guns 3. The only two actors who don't seem like younguns in their great-several-times-removed-grandpappies clothes are Jeffrey Wright and Jewel, who proves to be a better actress than musician. (Not that it would have taken much...)