"Ride With the Devil" Garners Praise in North American Debut

TORONTO -- Wowing its audience with a heady blend of bloody action and heartfelt humanism, the Kansas City-filmed "Ride With the Devil" made its North American debut Friday at the Toronto International FilmFestival. Toronto Sun critic Bruce Kirkland called it "the fest's most powerful historical drama...an evocative tale of murder, revenge, racial confusion, love and renewal. Jewel is a revelation. Tobey Maguire is a rising star."In introducing director Ang Lee's Civil War drama to an audience of nearly 1,600, festival director Piers Handling described "Devil" as "a quiet, delicate film about how once you release violence, how difficult it is to then escape it."

And that Lee, a native of Taiwan, has created such an "extraordinary film" on such a quintessentially American topic was, Handling said, "just terrific."

Before the gala screening in Roy Thompson Hall, Lee, writer-producer James Schamus and stars Maguire, Jewel, Skeet Ulrich and Jeffrey Wright took their bows from the stage.

The attention was largely on Jewel, the 24-year-old pop singing star who makes her acting debut in the film. Toronto newspapers published color photos of Jewel taken at the gala -- a testament to her immensepopularity. A jet-lagged Lee, Schamus and Maguire arrived in Toronto early Friday evening from Deauville, France, where on Thursday "Devil" opened that city's annual Festival of American Cinema and received a standing ovation from an audience that included Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall and Kirk Douglas."The French audience absolutely loved it," said Vicky Henley of the Kansas Film Commission, who with Kansas City Film Projects director Patti Watkins attended both festivals. "They were very responsive." But the real test of the film is at Toronto, said Steven Flynn, vice president for marketing of USA Films, which will open "Devil" on American screens Nov. 24.

"Toronto has the world's pre-eminent festival, in my opinion, because by debuting a film here you get instant international and domestic press exposure, and you get a good feel not only for critical reaction but for how the moviegoing public will respond to your picture."

Toronto audiences -- which this year will see 319 films from 52 countries in just 10 days -- are valued by film distributors as representing a blend of mainstream and art-house sensibilities. Moreover, the town seems to go movie-crazy for the festival. Department- store window displays often are movie-themed, and screening tickets are so valued that this year a public lottery was initiated to ensure an equitable distribution: In the past, most tickets went to those who spent all night on a sidewalk outside the box office.

Torontonians are so accustomed to movies being made under their noses that they no longer react to lights and cameras in the streets. But during the festival everyone seems to go star-crazy. It's easy to get the bug -- during just 10 minutes on Friday evening a gawker in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel could claim celebrity sightings of actors William H. Macy, Steve Zahn, Illeana Douglas, Bill Pullman, Mary Louise Parker and Kansas City native Chris Cooper.

The response of Toronto filmgoers to "Ride With the Devil," which was shot in the Kansas City area in the spring and early summer of last year, was easy enough to gauge. Audience members could be seen flinching in some of the film's more violent moments, and in one scene depicting the amputation of a character's arm, many turned their heads away. But if "Devil" -- which is based on Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell's Woe to Live On -- offered an unblinking glimpse of the horrors of the Kansas-Missouri border war, it also buoyed the viewers' emotions withhumor. In depicting the growing friendship between Maguire's Jake Roedel, a Huckleberry Finn-type innocent caught up in the war's madness, and Wright's Daniel Holt, a former slave riding with Confederate guerrillas, the film develops warmth and affection. And moviegoers responded. "They got it," a beaming Schamus said after the screening. "What I've found is that if you get the film's humor, you get what the film's about. It may be set in the Civil War, but basically it's a relationshipmovie." Kansas City audiences will find the film steeped in local history and peppered with references to familiar places and events -- Kansas City, Independence, Lexington, Mo., the Sni-A-Bar and, of course, the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, which is burned in film's cataclysmic centerpiece.

They will also see familiar faces of Kansas City actors in the film, among them Kathleen Warfel, Dean Vivien, Donna Thomason, Michael Rapport, Cheryl Weaver and T. Max Graham (whose brief, scene-stealing appearance as a food-obsessed preacher earned several laughs). Watkins and Henley, who work to attract film production to the Kansas City region, said "Devil" made their jobs easier.

"When I go to New York in November to try to sell Kansas locations to filmmakers, I'll be able to tell them to take a look at the new Ang Lee movie. That has a cachet that will get their attention," said Henley. Watkins described the film's location footage -- it was shot on both sides of the state line -- as "absolutely beautiful. It really showcases our landscape."At stake, they say, are millions in potential earnings from movie production. Watkins' office studied how the $35 million budget of "Ride With the Devil" was spent and determined that $21 million remained in Kansas City to pay local workers and to purchase goods and services.