"Coming-of-age" film, as Tobey Maguire defies his father he joins up with the guerrilla gangs of the South (known as the Bushwhackers) with his best pal, Skeet Ulrich.
What's this? A Western? Surely Ang Lee, delicate maestro of the parlour-room conflict, is finally out of his depth.
Yet with Ride With The Devil (based on Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe To Live On), dripping with horse sweat and ragged, furious gunplay, Lee proves as adept at divining the mythology of America's birth pangs as he is at creating the worlds of Taiwanese social mores, Jane Austen's corset repression and 70s staypress familial agonies.
And while not as intense or talky as his back catalogue, Ride is every bit as groundbreaking and intelligent - just with less wife-swapping and more horses.
Shot with the kind of cinematography that loosens Oscar cabinets, and populated with a cast of less familiar hip young things, this is a masterwork, melding internal conflict with external drama and vivid, sprawling action pieces that the likes of Eastwood, Ford or even Peckinpah would tip their hats toward.
Put oversimply, it follows the rites-of-passage of young Jake Roedel (the auspicious Maguire), who ignores his Unionist father and elects to follow his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Ulrich) and his own beliefs into the Confederacy - and a brutal war that will finally render any ideology pointless.
Set (and accurately made) on the Missouri/Kansas border, a stunningly lush Brit-like landscape of farms and dense woodland, it is a long way from the military manoeuvres of the Greys and the Blues.
Tapping into a Vietnam-esque war of attrition, the friends join a callous band of killers (including a beardy James Caviezel and a psychotic Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and endure a conflict of guerrilla tactics and deception between the Southernist Bushwhackers and Yankee Jayhawkers, which allows Lee to try his hand at brutal shoot-outs and, in one huge opera of violence, re-enact a real-life mass slaughter, as a rag-tag Confederate army reduce the town of Lawrence, Kansas, to rubble.
This is also, of course, an Ang Lee movie - a grandiose Western concerned with human relationships. Jewel makes a polished and attractive debut as the love interest of both friends; far from a cliched love triangle, her maddening attempts to woo a resolutely bachelor Jake are among the filmÆs most touching moments.
Jeffrey Wright (who shone in 1996's Basquiat) is an even more complex character, a slave conversely fighting for the South and the cause of slavery, whose strange yet devoted friendship to Jake is a pivotal feature.
James Schamus' politically astute script is at pains to consider the mindset of the Southern fighters, painting a realistic vision of men fighting for family and land, and not simply a bunch of racist Dixie baddies.
And even within this highly-charged drama, Lee succeeds in adding humour to the range and colour of emotions he evokes from his material, slipping in the gentle laughs inherent in the absurdity of their situation. He even manages his trademark lavish mealtime motif.
Ride falls narrowly short of five-star glory, care of its occasional loss of narrative focus, and fails to truly get into the hearts and minds of some of the characters - chiefly Ulrich's frustratingly vague Jack Bull and Rhys-Meyers' overblown nutcase - but these are just irritants, not flaws. Ang Lee's sweeping romantic Civil War adventure clips the bar of masterpiece and remains a magisterial movie experience.
A magisterial movie experience. Not quite a masterpeice, but not far off.