Apr 26 2010

The Fugitive and the Devil: Two Portraits of the South revived by Criterion

Ride With The Devil (Director’s Cut) (Criterion) is Ang Lee and James Schamus’ reconstruction of their preferred cut of their 1999 Civil War drama, which they cut to under two hours and fifteen minutes to meet their contractually obligated running time for its theatrical release. This newly-prepared cut runs about 14 minutes longer. I hadn’t seen the film since its theatrical release so I can’t pass judgment on a preferred version (let alone explicate the differences), but I was gripped by the film in this reviewing in ways I did not expect. Based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell and adapted by longtime Lee collaborator and producer James Schamus, the film is set in the divided state of Missouri, where neighbor really did fight neighbor and sides were chosen more out of social identity than political allegiance. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) consider themselves Southern men and, when the “war of Northern aggression” hits the Jack Bull farm and becomes personal, they join the Bushwhackers and joins a brutal guerilla war between private militias conducting a war of terrorism, a fight that, in this film, culminates with the Lawrence Massacre, one of the great atrocities of the Civil War.

Riding with Jewel and Skeet Ulrich

Bucolic scenes of men at rest in beautiful wild landscapes and families gathered over meals in manors and homesteads are shattered by battles fought with a brutality driven by something close to vengeance: it becomes personal to every man with a family touched by the war. There’s no romanticizing the fight or the values on the line here, and even those men who proclaim that it’s not about slavery but states rights aren’t about to let those damned abolitionists tell them that they can’t have slaves. But behind the rallying cries is a portrait of young men in war facing the reality of battle and seeing the brutality of their kind of war, fought outside the bounds of the army and driven by various levels of anger, vengeance or (in the case of the sneering son of the South played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) pure sadism. At the risk of sounding as if I’m reducing the complex portrait to a cliché, it is a coming of age film of sorts, but for Jake it’s not just becoming a man, a husband and a father. It’s about bonding with freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) and, trusting him with his life in ways he could never have predicted, seeing him as a human being with everything at stake in the war. That Daniel fights on the side of the South is one of the great contradictions that complicates and enriches the portrait. Identity and loyalty are ultimately defined by personal connections rather than social assumptions, political belief or even national status, and personal experience is the forge that shapes the evolution of Jake’s identity through the war.

“It’s a pleasure to see it again, in its integral version,” remarks Schamus in a commentary track he shares with Lee, though they were recorded separately and edited together into a seamless presentation, and he points out the first scene restored to the film: a scene in the wedding celebration where politics threatens to break out into violence and we get our first glimpse of Mark Ruffalo. It’s a small thing and Ruffalo never even speaks, but it gives greater power to the later scene when Jack and Jack Bull meet him again as a prisoner of war, and it gives the aftermath of their act of kindness a more powerful resonance. But the restored scenes are also, in Lee’s words, “the scenes you actually get to live with the people” and they give the odyssey of these young men a greater texture.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions feature two commentary tracks (the second features director of photography Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg, who bounce comments off one another in the same recording session), plus a new video interview with actor Jeffrey Wright and a booklet with new essays on the film (by critic Godfrey Cheshire) and the historical background on the events presented in the film.

Anna Magnani, Marlon Brando and snakeskin jacket

Previously available in a movie-only DVD edition from MGM, Criterion gives t he deluxe treatment to The Fugitive Kind (Criterion), Sidney Lumet’s film of Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending, scripted by Williams and starring Marlon Brando in perhaps the definitive Method performance of the era. Brando’s Valentine Xavier is a sensitive loner and eternal victim who breaks down in a Southern backwater, a purely Williams world of drunks and grudges and emotionally crippled impotents taking out their fury by finding victims to make even more miserable under their control. It wasn’t only Brando’s second screen engagement with Williams’ material. The part of Lady Torrance, the miserable Italian immigrant wife of the bedridden tyrant (Victor Jory), was written for Anna Magnani, who passed on the stage production but agreed to bring it to the screen (her second Williams adaptation, after The Rose Tattoo).

Highly theatrical and dripping with gothic atmosphere, it’s hardly realistic and the love story never convinces, but it is mesmerizing, thanks to all the “Acting” with a capital A. It’s like watching Brando do James Dean (who was, of course, doing Brando), under an orchestrated symphony of ticks and mumbles and heavy pauses and a snakeskin jacket as defining (if not as evocative) as Dean’s red jacket, and still finding a fragile soul under it all. Next to the heavy hush and measured atmosphere of Brando, Magnani is all street diva, using her big, earthy performance to separate herself from the cast: powerhouses who wander in from different movies. Joanne Woodward is more in Brando’s as a slumming socialite who turns every emotion and impulse into a grand statement and Maureen Stapleton (who originated the role of Lady Torrance on stage) is heartbreaking as a fragile and generous local artist. The Criterion DVD features the archival 1958 TV presentation Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, an hour-long production directed by Lumet and featuring Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant, plus a substantial new 28-minute video interview with Lumet, an original documentary on Williams’ work in Hollywood and the development of The Fugitive Kind and a booklet with an essay by film critic David Thomson.

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