When director Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" took off last year on its ascent to critical and commercial success, many film-goers in Japan were left scratching their heads: How did this director of small,family-based melodramas like "The Ice Storm" or "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" suddenly make the leap to action-packed period spectacle?

Well, here is the missing link: "Ride With the Devil," opening this week in Tokyo, was made prior to "Crouching Tiger," and this American Civil War drama shows Lee's first attempt to merge the micro with the macro, setting intense inner turmoil against a background of epic conflict. Although "Ride" employs all the period cliches of the Old West -- galloping gunmen and rustic drawls -- Lee gives us a view of an era in flux. Just as in "The Ice Storm," the old values have crumbled, and people are floundering without direction.

Set along the Kansas-Missouri border during the onset of the Civil War, "Ride With the Devil" (based on the novel "Woe to Live On" by Daniel Woodrell) follows the brutal internecine warfare that sprung up between the pro- and antislavery communities. Childhood friends Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) enlist in the pro-Confederate "Bushwhacker" militia after Jack Bull's plantation-owning father is murdered by Union sympathizers. Jake follows his friend unquestioningly, despite the fact that his own family, like most German immigrants, was pro-Union.