Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a new column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for the first installment, let’s begin with 2013’s The Lone Ranger!
In the similar grounds of Speed Racer and John Carter before it, The Lone Ranger is a movie with a small fanbase. It’s a large movie with a klutzy, very un-cool hero (Armie Hammer), that’s based on a property that most young viewers don’t know or care about, and to put it bluntly wasn’t ever that great in the first place. Back in 2013 the film arrived in theaters stained with the gossip of filmmaker-vs.-studio budget wars, and concerns with the casting of Johnny Depp (who also serves as a co-executive producer on the film) as the Ranger’s Native American friend and spirit guide, Tonto — sporting face-paint and a dead-crow tiara in the process. It might have been misjudged before it even started, but the film eventually grossed $260 million on a $250 million budget and got slaughtered on the critical front (if you’re a fan of the critical aggregators, the film holds a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 37 on Metacritic). And though the film received two technical Oscar nominations (for Makeup and Visual Effects), the reception remained heavy on the negative side. And it’s too bad: for all its occasional miscalculations, The Lone Ranger is unlike hardly any Disney movie; it’s violent, sweet, clever, and full of Buster Keatonesque visual gags and left-field references. It’ll probably be a while for most to get on the re-evaluation train, but I’ll just go ahead and say it, this movie is flagrantly misunderstood.
This time around, Tonto doesn’t live to serve the Masked Man. Though Depp’s portrayal of him as a shaman-type mystic is a little problematic, Tonto here is a wandering spirit on his own mission for justice; an outsider, regarded by the other Comanche — who are more concerned with treaties and boundaries than animism — as mentally ill. He’s a sad pariah who has dealt with trauma by retreating into a fantasy world inspired by children’s bedtime stories. It’s all a clever bit of revisionism. The Ranger, whose birth name is John Reid, has gone west to join his Texas Ranger brother (James Badge Dale). Reid meets Tonto shackled on a train with the repulsive outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who escapes, links up with his old outlaw gang, and wreaks havoc on Reid, Tonto and the territory — but not in a vacuum. Butch may be a leering, scar-faced sadist who eats flesh (yes, you read that correctly; a Disney movie with a cannibalistic villain!) — Tonto, though, refers to him as “wendigo,” and says he’s driven “life out of balance” and carries a silver bullet to put him down — but in time we see that the outlaw is an expression of the American identity. Like the railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson) that he secretly serves (that’s hardly a spoiler, it’s obvious within minutes), Butch expresses the will of the majority, even though the kindlier members of the majority hate to think of themselves in such unflattering terms. It’s a film where the villains aren’t Native Americans, but the capitalistic greed and self-interest of the white man.
The Lone Ranger portrays its setting as a PG-13 version of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s every-man-for-himself hellscape. And granted, this has been the Western’s default worldview since the ’70s, but it’s still startling to see it applied to something like The Lone Ranger. This myth is innately square, attuned to received wisdom about who runs the country and why it’s okay. The character tried to migrate from the ’50s small screen to theaters in 1981 and failed, not just because the movie was weak, but because in a world that was just a few years out of Watergate and Vietnam, the notion of a poor person of color devoting himself to a middle-class white male savior didn’t make sense anymore, if indeed it ever did. (Even more interesting, there’s evidence that the real-life basis for the Ranger was a black man.) So how do you adapt the Ranger for a multicultural, post-9/11, post-financial-crisis America? That was the big question (even back in the project’s early development is was talked about making Tonto a female love interest). But the filmmakers grapple with it amusingly, and throw in large-scale action, broad slapstick, and black-comedy banter while they’re at it. (At one point Reid exclaims, “The United States Army! Finally, someone who’ll listen to reason!”)
There are points throughout the film when you might be reminded of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, and not just because the climax involves trains on parallel tracks and that the bad guy removes a man’s heart from his chest (an atrocity reflected and abstracted in a witness’ eyeball). Like the Indiana Jones films, The Lone Ranger is a jampacked cliffhanger, and has a very 20th century mindset for its methods. The film’s director, Gore Verbinski, seemingly has a clear eye: The film’s staging is immaculate, with high energy and a lot of moving parts that was often being mislabeled as “messy” by many initially. (Seriously, James Haygood and Craig Wood’s editing is quite great and there’s two or three set pieces that are easily some of the best in all of contemporary blockbusters.) But especially in the age in which most blockbusters have but one mode, the caffeinated sprint, The Lone Ranger gives its characters space to breath and think (maybe too much time; but still!). Armie Hammer delivers the earnest, bumbling charm of a young Christopher Reeve; Ruth Wilson is solid, but continually underused; and Depp, with problematic elements still there, still finds some solid comedy in the vein of the stone-faced silent movie stars such as Buster Keaton and William S. Hart.
Throughout some viewers might recognize the film’s basic plot as the one of Jim Jarmusch’s (Johnny Depp-starring) Dead Man and they will even be rewarded with further references: the aforementioned cannibalistic gunslinger, a cross-dressing outlaw in a bonnet, and a moment where Depp utters a more PG-13-friendly version of his signature line in Dead Man. Like Gore Verbinski’s previous movie of the time, Rango, The Lone Ranger substitutes pastiche for plot (with Bojan Bazelli’s anamorphic 35mm-digital mix cinematography being continually stunning). From the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West and the climax of Buster Keaton’s The General being quoted, there are throwaway nods to everything from The Red Balloon to Blazing Saddles to El Topo. Whatever imagery is original to The Lone Ranger tends to be imaginatively grotesque: a brothel-keeper (Helena Bonham Carter) who hides a gun in a prosthetic leg carved from whale bone, a brass band performing in plaster casts and slings, a drowning man being pummeled with rocks.
Thankfully, though, The Lone Ranger is more than the sum of its references, because Verbinski and his screenwriters (Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio) bring them to rightfully fit a vision. This is a story about national myths: why they’re perpetuated and who benefits. As we watch this story unfold, we’re not seeing “reality,” but a shaggy, colorful counter-myth, told with an eccentric framing device from a elderly Tonto to a young white boy at an Old West museum in 1933 San Francisco. Old Tonto is labeled as a “Noble Savage” in a glass case, surrounded by a Monument Valley diorama whose color and texture prepare us for the (stunning) CGI-infused storybook landscapes that make up the film itself. Tonto wants to stop the boy from swallowing and reflexively trusting all the old Western stereotypes and myths he’s heard. In Tonto’s story all the old Western signifiers are flipped. A U.S. Army action on behalf of a corporation is so cynical that the audience prays for the Native American’s to ride to the rescue. The film is so attuned to Tonto’s distress that when a brass band plays “Stars and Stripes Forever,” it’s done so as bad guy music with near chilling qualities.
The Ranger himself is a decent man from the beginning, but he’s serving corrupt masters without knowing it. By the end, his values are that of a strong ’60s activist who insists that the stated values of America are great, but we just haven’t lived up to them. It’s a display of a character so unbelievably square that he eventually becomes a symbol of America’s own disappointment in ourselves. Near the end, the Ranger has become something in the vein of an American Robin Hood — an outlaw-by-circumstance who understands the difference between brute force and honest moral authority. The fact that such concepts and themes were being endorsed by $250 million Disney tentpole blockbuster will seem either hypocritical or deeply inspiring. I’d say it’s the latter. But either way, this is a blockbuster all its own; so unique, and maybe overlong, but dazzling and finely singular, build of many new and borrowed parts yet defiantly its own thing. It’s a film in need of much re-evaluation.