As intensively as Hollywood has strip-mined the Civil War in search of box-office gold, that anguished era has never looked or sounded in a movie quite the way it does in Ang Lee's chilly epic, ''Ride With the Devil.'' This visually arresting but dramatically flat portrait of a group of pro-Southern bushwhackers waging guerrilla war against Union forces and sympathizers in the fields, farms and backwoods roads along the Kansas-Missouri border veers about as far from the high-romantic flourishes of ''Gone With the Wind'' as a movie can go.
In its attention to period detail, to 19th-century customs and locutions of speech, ''Ride With the Devil,'' adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel ''Woe to Live On,'' feels at times like an anthropological study. Twice the movie pauses for readings by Confederates of poignant letters (taken from a confiscated Union mail bag) written to soldiers on the battlefield by their Northern relatives.
Instead of stately plantations and gliding Southern belles, ''Ride With the Devil'' beckons us into a world of austere farmhouses and primitive frontier towns. It is a place of dust and mud and untamed woods, where day-to-day life is so spare that a chicken dinner is considered a luxury reserved for weddings.
Some of the movie's most harrowing scenes take place in a crude dugout hideaway where a group of bushwhackers burrow in for the long winter and are tended by a young widow, Sue Lee (the pop star Jewel), who brings them scraps of bacon and bread. In this muddy lean-to, one seriously wounded guerrilla has a gangrenous arm amputated by a fellow bushwhacker without benefit of anesthetic or even alcohol to blunt the pain.
''Ride With the Devil'' focuses on two bushwhackers, Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), childhood friends who have joined a scruffy unit led by Black John (James Caviezel). Other members of the group include the courtly, curly-headed George Clyde (Simon Baker); Clyde's loyal former slave, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright); and Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a surly, hollow-cheeked psychopath for whom the war is an opportunity to vent a free-floating homicidal rage.
The bushwhackers' battles, waged hundreds of miles from the main military campaigns, are chaotic, fly-by-night raids often sparked by tit-for-tat vendettas. In one daring foray they don the enemy's uniforms to enter a Union encampment. The film's dramatic climax is a stunning reconstruction of Quantrill's Raid, the massacre of Aug. 21, 1863, in which 450 Confederate guerrillas organized by William Clarke Quantrill descended on Lawrence, Kan., an Abolitionist stronghold, and slaughtered 150 citizens.
A goal of the attack is the destruction of a school at which, one Confederate raider bitterly complains, the children are educated with ''no regard for status, custom and propriety.'' He goes on to acknowledge that the Yankee passion for mass education and the democratic values that it expresses are the unstoppable wave of the future and spell defeat for the Confederacy and everything it stands for. This speech embodies the core idea of a film that aspires to be a searching meditation on the birth of the nation at a critical historical turning point.
But the movie's meditative quality and its attention to detail and the rough-hewn textures of 19th-century life are also what keep the story at a distance and make ''Ride With the Devil'' dramatically skimpy, even though the movie stirs together themes of love, sex, death and war.
The characters in ''Ride With the Devil'' seem almost radically de-romanticized. Jake has potentially heroic qualities; during the orgy of blood lust that was Quantrill's Raid he keeps his head and refuses to slaughter innocent civilians. But the laconic screenplay by James Schamus and Mr. Maguire's sensitive, understated performance portray him as an unformed 19-year-old. When on the night of his wedding to Sue Lee she asks if he's a virgin, he blurts, ''Well, I've killed 15 men.''
Jewel, whose performance matches Mr. Maguire's in low-key credibility, conveys an orneriness and tough humor (she bluntly refers to his little finger, partially severed in combat, as his nubbin') beneath a facade of 19th-century decorum. By treating the wedding night as no big deal (there are no lingering close-ups of entwining lips and limbs and no ecstatic morning-after shots), the movie couldn't be more un-Hollywood.
Mr. Schamus and Mr. Lee also collaborated (brilliantly) on ''The Ice Storm,'' a film that was as coolly observant of the social rites and mating habits of a group of depressed 1970's Connecticut suburbanites as ''Ride With the Devil'' is of its bushwhackers. That film suggested the Taiwanese-born director was evolving into a kind of cinematic anthropologist examining social microcosms in his adopted country.
''Ride With the Devil'' feels even more detached, partly because it is set so far in the past. Even after two viewings, the secondary characters (including Mr. Ulrich's Jack Bull) remain largely undefined. That's because ''Ride With the Devil'' looks at the people and events as part of something larger. There's not that much room for heroism, romance, action-adventure thrills and melodrama and all those things Hollywood cherishes when you're contemplating a nation's birth pangs.
''Ride With the Devil'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has a scenes of violence and of a woman nursing her baby.
RIDE WITH THE DEVIL
Directed by Ang Lee; written by James Schamus, based on the novel ''Woe to Live On'' by Daniel Woodrell; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Ted Hope, Robert F. Colesberry and Mr. Schamus; released by USA Films. Running time: 138 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Tobey Maguire (Jake Roedel), Skeet Ulrich (Jack Bull Chiles), Jeffrey Wright (Daniel Holt), Jewel (Sue Lee Shelley), James Caviezel (Black John), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Pit Mackeson) and Simon Baker (George Clyde).