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Ride with the Devil

Scenery has played a major role in Ang Lee's English-language films. In 1995's ''Sense and Sensibility, '' Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet's love lives blossomed within the stone walls of English cottages and lush meadows, while 1997's ''The Ice Storm'' transformed the wintry 1970s American suburbia into a metaphor for bleak family dysfunction.

In his new film, ''Ride With the Devil,'' it's the Midwestern frontier, which gets used in the grandiose, sweeping manner of ''Dances With Wolves'' but lacks many layers. Based on Daniel Woodrell's 1987 novel ''Woe to Live On,'' the story takes place in the midst of the Civil War. An unofficial army in the South, called the Bushwhackers, raid Union soldiers and supporters in back roads and countryside towns along the Kansas/Missouri border. The long-tressed, bearded young men run headfirst into northern trouble wherever they can find it, whooping and shooting like a grown-up version of Cowboys and Indians.

Two of the Bushwhackers are lifelong friends Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), the son of a poor German immigrant, and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), whose aristocratic father is killed by Union soldiers for owning slaves. Their unit includes the vengeful Black John (James Caviezel), George Clyde (Simon Baker) and Holt (Jeffrey Wright), George's loyal, freed slave.

When winter approaches, the unit breaks up to seek shelter. Jake, Jack and Holt are hidden in a dugout on the property of a sympathizing family, which includes a young widow named Sue Lee Shelley (singer Jewel in her acting debut). Their days are spent working in exchange for shelter and food, reading letters out loud from a stolen mailbag to pass the time. Bonds strengthen among the four characters, as they question the purpose of a losing war and its disruption in their own lives. When fighting intrudes again, there's more at stake this time.

The problem with ''Ride With the Devil'' is that its beautiful landscapes and cinematography lack the story to fill it out. The plot is long-winded and lacks momentum, although Lee presents a spectacular shootout scene of the Lawrence Massacre of 1863, as the unit proudly discards its disguises to reveal bright-red Bushwhacker shirts before it marches into bullet-riddled mayhem. But instead of ending there, the story drags further until all loose ends are tied up.

The innocent Maguire, who worked with Lee in ''The Ice Storm'' and played the idealistic dreamer in ''Pleasantville,'' time travels to a similar role as the quiet hero who must step forward and grow up quickly. Maguire's character is not a fighter by nature, and some of his peace-inclined actions are deemed traitorous, particularly by a trigger-happy scoundrel played by Jonathan Rhys Myers (''Velvet Goldmine''), who spends half the film jeering at Jake like a sly fox ready to pounce.

Ulrich looks the part of the wealthy son turned renegade, but his adventurous character is thinly drawn. An unrecognizable and underused Caviezel (''The Thin Red Line''), as the unit leader who's hell-bent for justice, expresses more in his icy blue eyes under a thick beard than Ulrich does in a paragraph. The biggest question, of course, is: Can Jewel act? The jury's still out. Her early scenes are jarring (chirping ''Howdy!'' with Swiss Miss braids and a horse doesn't automatically make one a Southern war widow), but the singer improves when she tones down her efforts to be spunky. But there isn't much material for her to work with. Jewel spends much of the time gazing demurely at something and registers little chemistry with either Ulrich or the too-young-looking Maguire.

The brightest performance in ''Ride With the Devil'' is that of Wright (''Basquiat''), who becomes friend and confidant to Jake and seeks to save his enslaved family. He doesn't speak the entire first half of the movie, but everything from the resigned slump in his shoulders to his gentle tip of the hat makes him one of the better-developed characters. Unfortunately, it's not enough. Without enough support, Wright can't balance the film on his shoulders alone, and the fine scenery has little choice but to fade into the background.

*MPAA rating: R, for graphic war violence.

''Ride With the Devil''

Tobey Maguire: Jake Roedel

Skeet Ulrich: Jack Bull Chiles

Jewel: Sue Lee Shelley

Jeffrey Wright: Daniel Holt

Simon Baker: George Clyde

A USA presentation. Director Ang Lee. Writer James Schamus. Novel Daniel Woodrell. Producers Ted Hope, Robert F. Colesberry and James Schamus. Director of Photography Fred Elmes. Editor Tim Squyres. Music Mychael Danna. Production Designer Mark Friedberg. Costume Designer Marit Allen. Art Director Steve Arnold. Set Decorator Stephanie Carrol. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.