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.

A similarly odd couple is Southern gentleman George Clyde (Simon Baker) and his freed slave and best friend Holt (Jeffrey Wright). Holt’s loyalty to George leads him into war on the rebel side, and while this may seem horribly anti-PC, it is based on historical fact. (And the irony does not go unremarked.)

Led by the fanatical Black John (James Caviezel, looking like he just stepped out of an 1860s daguerreotype), the Bushwhackers engage in daring raids on Union forces and brutal reprisals on the civilian population. During a winter lull in the fighting, the boys hole up on a sympathetic farm owner’s property; Jack Bull falls for a young widow (played by singer Jewel), while Jake slowly starts to bond with the reticent Holt, which forces him to examine his uncritically assumed attitudes concerning “niggers.”

Everything comes to a head when the Bushwhackers ride with Col. William Quantrill on his ill-fated 1863 raid on the proabolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas. This (historically) culminated with a massacre the likes of which the U.S. has rarely seen: 180 civilians dragged into the street and shot like dogs. Jake and Holt are shocked into confronting what exactly it is they’re fighting for, and the echoes of contemporary “ethnic cleansing” are hard to ignore.

It’s an interesting — and daring — ploy to give us protagonists on the wrong side of history. But while we may start within the Confederate worldview, Lee seeks to highlight the confused reasons that bring people to war: Jake and Holt out of loyalty, Jack Bull for revenge, Black John out of weird religious convictions and George Clyde for tradition, even though he has rejected its central value (slave-holding).

Rest assured, though, that this is no apologia: There are racists aplenty, the vilest of whom is Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Jack Bull may maintain the Southern chivalry of not killing women or kids, but Mackeson has no restraint. He’s the kind of guy who uses war as an excuse to act out his worst impulses, and Rhys-Meyers plays him with a glassy-eyed intensity. (In fact, many of the Wild West’s most notorious killers rode with th Bushwhackers.)

There are only two types of actors when it comes to period pieces: those who can pull it off, and those who can’t. Unlike, say, DiCaprio, who can never shake the body language or inflection of his age, Tobey Maguire literally disappears into his role. His bemused manner easily adopts the laconic cadence of the era, and Woodrell’s text provides him with plenty of cold, dry humor. (Actually, the strangely rustic yet formal dialogue is one of the film’s fortes.) Jeffrey Wright is just as good, bearing the wary inscrutability of a lone black man among armed racists, while Skeet Ulrich aims for a grizzled Clark Gable charm.

There’s a hell of a lot to absorb from this film, in both its grand themes of misplaced idealism and conformity, and its moment-to-moment pleasures. It will thrill you with some breathless action set-pieces — like when the rebels dash through a gauntlet of gunfire to escape a burning farmhouse — and then turn your mood inside out with quiet sojourns of haunting beauty. The best of these comes when Jake reads some letters, taken from dead Union soldiers, to his illiterate and homesick comrades. For them, even the words of an enemy’s mother are solace.

“Ride With the Devil” is notable for reversing the traditional arc of the western/war movie: It starts off fast and furious, and gradually pulls back toward calm and domesticity. In many ways, it represents the riposte to Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot.” Emmerich, with flag-waving certainty, showed us that you can’t back down from war; when push comes to shove, then it’s time to kick ass. In Lee’s film, though, the young hotheads eager to prove themselves through combat only wind up sick of war and any damn cause it seeks to champion.

Where “The Patriot” ends in bloody triumph (the “Yo!” moment when the evil Brit officer gets gored), “Ride With the Devil” suggests that this is the myth that drives all wars, and offers a different resolution indeed. The final confrontation between Jake and Mackeson is an incredibly genre-defying and poignant moment; unlike almost every other movie out there, “Ride” suggests that a moment of thought before pulling the trigger is not a bad idea.

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