Home > Reviews > RIDE WITH THE DEVIL – Mychael Danna


November 26, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

ridewiththedevilOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Under normal circumstances, Taiwanese director Ang Lee and Canadian composer Mychael Danna would not be the first names to spring to mind when thinking of the appropriate people to collaborate on an epic civil war western, But, with Ride With The Devil, both men have undoubtedly done the best work of their careers to date. Adapted from the acclaimed novel Woe To Live On by Daniel Woodrell, Ride With The Devil gives a seldom-seen perspective on the American conflict by following the lives of two Missouri boys, Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), who join up with a ragtag army of Confederate bushwhackers after their parents are killed by Yankee troops. Although loyal to the South, the bushwhackers are ungoverned by the “proper” army, and primarily patrol their own territories, killing Yankees when they can, sacking Northern-allied towns when they can’t. As time progresses and the bloodshed increases, it soon becomes apparent that Jake and Jack Bull are slowly becoming more and more disenchanted with the “cause” they once so passionately believed in, and are questioning their own morality – especially after crossing paths with Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), a young war widow, and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a former slave who still remains with his former owner George Clyde (Simon Baker) and fights for the South.

As a motion picture experience, Ride With The Devil is one of the most fulfilling films I have had the pleasure of seeing in 1999. Aside from the four central performances, all of which are exemplary and Oscar-worthy, there is great support from a cast of relative unknowns, especially Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Pitt Mackeson, the menacing bushwhacker who makes Roedel’s life a misery. In addition, the movie delves far deeper into examining the Southern point of view than any film since Gone With The Wind, bringing a seldom-seem sense of fairness and thoughtfulness to its depiction of the conflict. This could be down to director Ang Lee who, as he did with Sense and Sensibility, brings a fresh perspective to a story which is too often told with a jaded familiarity and a Union bias. Technically, the film is masterful, with Frederick Elmes’ naturalistic photography and Mark Friedberg’s authentic production design being of special note.

Mychael Danna is best known for his low-key, minimalist, ethnically rich scores for films such as Exotica, The Ice Storm and The Sweet Hereafter, and not for his rousing action cues. It comes as a great surprise, therefore, to discover that his work on Ride With The Devil is comparatively straightforward – fully orchestral, large in scale and scope, and at times incredibly good. A large proportion of his music is written in the old Western style, with orchestrations for fiddle, accordion guitar and mandolin, but regularly bursts into life with a series of rousing action sequences, a gorgeous love theme and a spine-tingling central theme.

The ‘Opening Credits’ introduce the score’s predominant style with a lovely tune for deep strings and solo guitar, before segueing into the first of three traditional period pieces, the lively ‘Miss McLeod’s Reel’. There is quite a bit of this low-key, understated music in the score, colored with an attractive woodwind element (‘Fireside Letter’, ‘Hilltop Letter’, ‘Freedom’) or an especially prominent guitar or fiddle (‘Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers’, ‘Settling In For Winter’).

The love theme for Jack Bull and Sue Lee makes its first appearance in the gorgeous ‘Ride to the Evans’, swelling to its finest performance in the heartbreaking, elegiac ‘Jack Bull’s Death’. The conclusive cues, ‘A Chicken At The End Of It’ and ‘Finale’, sees Danna in full-on Americana mode, rounding out the score with a wonderful rendition of a completely new theme, accompanying the superb, panoramic vistas of the American west as the credits roll. The only criticism of the score I have is that this theme does not feature in more of it – a missed opportunity if ever there was one.

The things which really stand out for me, though, are the action cues, which rank among some of the most powerful I have heard for a long time from any composer, let alone Danna. In ‘Clark Farm Shootout’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘Quantrill’s Arrival/Ride to Lawrence’, ‘Sacking Lawrence’ and ‘Battle and Betrayal’, Danna lets rip with the entire might of the orchestra behind him, mixing loud and tumultuous percussion with thunderous horn calls, rampant string work and some truly staggering fiddle solos. In ‘The Ambush’ especially, the music engages in some almost Horner-like orchestral crashes, while the massive ‘Sacking Lawrence’ provides the score’s finest rendition of the central western theme.

Ride With The Devil introduces a completely new side to Danna’s talent which I dearly hope we hear again soon. Danna himself has said that, although his first love remains the ethnic textures of his earlier works, he wrote this score to prove to himself and others that he can “do this sort of thing decently”, and to respond to many of the poor reviews aimed at his score for 8MM. As you may have guessed, I believe Danna has firmly answered his critics, and that Ride With The Devil is one of the great scores of 1999. I will be mightily disappointed if both film and score are not recognized come Oscar time.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Opening Credits (3:01)
  • Miss McLeod’s Reel (traditional) (1:41)
  • Jayhawkers and Bushwackers (3:20)
  • Clark Farm Shootout (3:05)
  • Fireside Letter (1:50)
  • Sally in the Garden (traditional, arranged and performed by Dirk Powell) (1:21)
  • Settling in for Winter (0:49)
  • Ride to the Evans/Hilltop Letter (2:10)
  • Sue Lee/Dinner at the Evans (1:28)
  • The Ambush (2:52)
  • George Clyde Clears Out (1:44)
  • Jack Bull’s Death (4:45)
  • Old King Crow (traditional, arranged and performed by Marty Liebschner) (2:06)
  • Quantrill’s Arrival/Ride to Lawrence (2:37)
  • Sacking Lawrence (4:05)
  • Don’t Think You Are A Good Man (2:11)
  • Battle and Betrayal (3:13)
  • Freedom (2:42)
  • A Chicken At The End Of It (1:36)
  • Finale (3:09)
  • What’s Simple Is True (written and performed by Jewel) (3:36)

Running Time: 53 minutes 12 seconds

Atlantic 7567-83262-2 (1999)

Music composed by Mychael Danna. Conducted and orchestrated by Nicholas Dodd. Featured musical soloists Dirk Powell, John Whelan, Kelly Waters, Roger Landes and Jeff Dover. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Pat Mullins. Mastered by Mark Wilder. Album produced by Mychael Danna and Alex Steyermark.

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