This rip-roaring adventure story presents a fresh and deeply humanistic portrait of a little known slice of Civil War history. Screenwriter James Schamus and director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility) focus on the coming of age of Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire in a finely tuned performance), the Missouri-raised teenage son of a poor German immigrant. Throughout the drama, he is forced to make ethical decisions that express his moral fiber and will eventually determine his place in the world.

Jake and his best friend, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), join a paramilitary band of men and boys — called Bushwackers — serving the Confederate cause. Although they claim to be fighting to preserve their way of life, including slavery, these young men also have revenge as a motive. The Yanks murdered Jack's father. Others among their group trying to kill as many Union soldiers as possible are Black John (James Caviezel), the leader; George Clyde (Simon Baker) and his former slave, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright); and Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a bigot who constantly makes Jake feel like an outsider.

The bloodlust of these men reaches a high point when they attack the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, and brutally murder 180 people. It is at this point that Jake turns his attention to Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), a pregnant war widow who desperately needs a husband to help her forge a new life.

Ang Lee again puts on display his great gift of drawing out superb performances from his actors and actresses. Here Tobey Maguire effectively conveys the painful initiation of a sensitive youth caught up in a sea of violence. Equally impressive is the luminous performance of Jewel as a young woman determined to control her own destiny.