THE LONE RANGER: Something Very Wrong with That Horse

Lone Ranger posterThe Lone Ranger (2013) – Directed by Gore Verbinski – Starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Helena Bonham Carter, Mason Cook, Saginaw Grant, and Stephen Grant.

If you’re new here, be aware that SPOILERS LIE BEYOND THIS POINT. I’m liable to talk about anything and everything. You have been warned.

The grumpy fundamentalists and malcontent professionals have been out to get THE LONE RANGER from the moment it was announced. Pick your reason – Depp playing an Indian, Depp doing another wacky misfit part, the fear that this would be Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Johnny Depp’s crow hat, who the hell is Armie Hammer? – it’s rare when a movie generates this much negative buzz from both the critic and fan camps. One, sure. But both? That’s a very rare thing and I’m not wholly sure where it comes from, although I suspect a lot of it goes back to Seth Rogen’s awful Green Hornet movie mixed with a whole lot of Depp Fatigue.

I’ll be the first to say something when a movie looks stupid. One of the trailers run before RANGER was for a dancing movie called Battle of the Year that stars Sawyer from LOST brought in to coach a dancing team that stars Chris Brown (presumably not beating up women but learning how to dance). While not quite the dumbest trailer I’ve ever seen, it was the dumbest trailer I’ve seen in awhile. Did you ever see that episode of South Park that was poking fun of You’ve Got Served, where the kids got involved in a dancing competition? Yeah, well, Battle of the Year is like someone watched that episode and decided what was wrong with it was that it was funny and animated and lacked someone from LOST coaching Drake from Josh and Drake. Or Josh, from Drake and Josh. Or both. I don’t know, I thought it was that kid from Boston on Season 3 of The Voice. Anyway, in this movie, Americans have been getting their ass kicked at dancing for 15 years and the current best in the world are the Koreans, so to right this incredible wrong, someone hires Sawyer (who’s a basketball coach, not a dancing coach – I repeat, he’s a basketball coach, not a dancing coach) to take a bunch of dancers to an abandoned juvenile detention center where they will learn to come together and dance in formation while wearing ridiculous costumes.

When it was over, I burst out laughing. It looks horrible. But – and here’s the difference – I’m not rooting for it to be awful. If I ever watch it, I’ll hope it turns out good because otherwise I’ll be purposely wasting my time.

That’s where I part ways with the fundamentalists and malcontents, fans who are so protective of their childhood memories and professionals who’ve lost sight of having one of the best jobs in the world that they’re actually rooting for movies to be awful.

Since THE LONE RANGER was released a few days ago, there’s been a sort of rabid joy at the film’s faults, at the fact that LONE RANGER isn’t true to the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels’ interpretations of the characters, that it isn’t the first or even second Pirates movie, and that it’s not a massive box office hit right out of the box. There’s been a childish piling on and while the jaded critic corps have to watch the movie, there’s been a lot of gleeful reveling from people with no intention at seeing it. Presumably, of course, if the film was a massive hit, these same people would be decrying the dumbing down of America or something.

It’s your life, but I’m not spending mine looking for things to get grumpy about.

I would love to tell you that THE LONE RANGER is a perfect bit of summer fun, but I can’t. There are parts of Gore Verbinski’s western that are phenomenal, but there are just as many parts that are dull, and the biggest problem with the film is the disconnect between slaughter and campiness. When John Reid (Armie Hammer) has been severely injured and a white spirit horse chooses him as his rider, Tonto (Johnny Depp) tries to convince the horse to choose John’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger and all-around typical western hero type. The horse, either because John really is the Chosen One or because he’s smart enough to realize that Dan is dead and ain’t coming back (since he had his heart cut out and eaten) while John is just knocked unconscious, insists on John. There’s a bit of a running joke about how Tonto thinks the horse is stupid, and Tonto’s conflict over the horse is mirrored by the filmmakers conflict with their film.

In short, the biggest problem with RANGER is that there is no strength in any of its convictions. Either the film doesn’t know what it wants to be, or it’s desperately trying to be everything to everybody. This is a movie which asks us to laugh at the absurdity of the Ranger’s spirit horse (his name is Silver, but he isn’t named until the end) standing in a tree five minutes after we witness the United States cavalry slaughtering attacking Comanche with Gatling guns.

Why did they do this? Am I really supposed to go from the horrors of tribal extermination to, “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! There’s a horse in a tree!”?

It’s almost impossible for the same film to contain these two scenes in such close proximity and not have one them override the other.

I have no idea what went on behind the scenes of this movie, but I have a sense that Verbinski and Depp wanted to make a more serious western (not Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West serious but maybe Raimi’s Quick and the Dead serious) while Bruckheimer and Disney wanted another Pirates movie (Verbinski’s Pirates, not Joone’s). My basis for this belief is in looking at the conception of Tonto and where the film derives it’s humor, which is to say that Tonto is decidedly not Jack Sparrow (and any film review that basically argues they’re the same character is a review you can go ahead and stop reading because it was written by someone who didn’t think about what he or she had just watched) and the film’s humor is generated by Tonto much more than it is directed at Tonto (unlike Jack, who had the humor running in both directions).

At this point in his career, Johnny Depp has largely become the wacky costume guy. In his review of RANGER, Grantland’s Wesley Morris, writes of where Depp is in 2013:

You worry that the more famous Depp has become the more he resents us for liking him. [...] The first Pirates franchise transformed Depp from a very good actor into a man with an astronomical asking price. In the decade since, his trashed approach to stardom has gradually turned into shtick, just as it has for [Robert] Downey. The difference is that Downey’s is fun and Depp’s is a parody of fun. Depp’s Tonto war paint speaks to the state of his stardom right now: dried out.

With all due respect to Morris (an excellent film critic who I just as often agree as disagree with), I think he’s completely wrong on this version of Depp. I’ve got as much Depp Fatigue as anyone, especially after the wretched Dark Shadows, but Tonto is far more than wacky face paint, a dead bird on his head, and eccentric mannerisms.

This is not Jack Sparrow. I think Disney and Bruckenheimer want it to be Jack Sparrow because Jack Sparrow makes them lots of coin. There’s even an ad tacked on before the movie for an upcoming Disney video game where an animated Jack and Tonto look at each other as if they are kindred souls.

But they’re not.

Jack is a bad guy with an occasional streak of honor, but Tonto is a man living with enormous guilt. When he was a child he helped save the life of two less-than-good white men. (As for the issue of Depp playing an Indian – it’s a non-issue for me. I believe people have the right to determine who portrays them on film, and if it’s okay with the leadership of the Comanche tribe, that’s good enough for me. Your mileage is free to vary on this one.) Tonto ended up trading the hidden location of a massive reserve of silver in exchange for a watch, and as thanks, the two men slaughtered Tonto’s entire village. As told to John by the Comanche elder, to help rectify his guilt, Tonto co-opted tribal mythologies and decided that the silver was cursed and the white men were possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo, and he has spent his life hunting them down. Even though he’s a Comanche, he’s a “man without a tribe,” living the isolated life of a hunter who feels he has no right among his own people because of his sins.

Where Morris sees Depp as being dried out, I think this is Depp’s best performance in years, but he’s not going to make it easy on us to see it. Like Morris, I thought Depp’s appearance in 21 Jump Street was inspired and one could take his literal ripping off the mask in that film as a symbol of Johnny Depp being buried beneath loads of make-up, which is how he’s spent the bulk of the last decade. He’s got plenty of make-up on in RANGER, to be sure. The visual look of Tonto was inspired by a Kirby Sattler painting entitled I Am Crow, which is a bit problematic given that Sattler does not paint authentic Indians, but composite, fantasy Indians. If Depp wants to make an authentic character, basing it off an inauthentic image is not a great place to start.

Except it sort of is. The film takes great pains to tell us repeatedly that Tonto is not a stand-in for all Indians or even all Comanche. The larger Comanche tribe has rejected him as a man who has lost himself to his own guilt and delusions, and when they decide to bury John up to his neck in the dirt and leave him to the mercy of scorpions, they bury Tonto right next to him.

Tonto is not Jack Sparrow in warpaint; he’s a messy amalgamation of Ahab and Walter Mitty.

Like so many people walking around out here in the real world, Tonto is a lost soul, looking for something to believe in to help him get over his mental problems. Instead of finding comfort in the embrace of others (either through joining a church or committing to therapy), the little boy guilty has gone the solo route. It’s played as funny when he feeds the dead bird on his head with dried corn, but by the end of the film it’s also tragic, too. Tonto is a guy looking for guidance. Ever since the white men he brought to his tribe to be saved turned out to be their destroyer, he’s been alone, and since he doesn’t have anyone to turn to, he’s invented the dead bird to be that voice of wisdom.

It’s an inspired conception and performance.

My other reason for thinking that Depp and Verbinski wanted a more serious film than the Pirates franchise, is that RANGER largely avoids making Tonto the butt of its jokes. There’s a few times when it does this (like when a prostitute recognizes him, clearly signalling he’s a former client), but Tonto is largely the guy who creates the film’s humor through his comments and asides to and about John. Tonto makes us laugh far more than the film makes us laugh at his expense. There’s also that scene where the Comanche tribe is slaughtered, which should be powerful and tragic but comes across as being out of place, like when you’re hanging out having a good time and Debbie Downer has to remind you that there are starving children in the world. Yes, Debbie, you’re right, but there’s a time and place when your point will have the biggest impact and it’s not while everyone is laughing at The Meaning of Life.

It’s John Reid we spend most of the film laughing at, and it’s almost like Depp got to envision the Tonto half of the movie and Bruckheimer got the Lone Ranger half. Like Green Hornet, LONE RANGER tries to assuage its racial guilt by making the white hero a bit of a doofus. John isn’t a bad guy; in fact, he’s a great guy. He is a man who believes in honor and principle and THE LAW and JUSTICE, not realizing that those principles exist far more on paper than they do in the actuality of Texas in 1869. John is the college-educated boy from the east who boxed at Yale and believes that life needs to be handled as if it were black and white instead of infinite shades of gray. He’s the kind of man who won’t shoot his brother’s killer because that man deserves a trial, who still believes that two powerful symbols of the United States – its military and its businesses – aren’t capable of immoral actions until they literally decide to point a gun at him.

The effect of John being book smart instead of street smart results in a lot of the film’s humor and it goes on too long. LONE RANGER is a 2 and 1/2 hour movie and it takes way too long for John to get to being the Lone Ranger. Even after he does, the film makes the tragic mistake of having him take a step back, rejecting what the mask symbolizes (in the literal sense, being an outlaw, and in the larger sense, being your own man) in order to run back to the comforting arms of the law.

RANGER is a curious movie to release near the Fourth of July because this is not a YAY, AMERICA! film. Both the United States army and the very concept of westward expansion are used to create stereotypical, flat villains. What the film does do well, however, is to reject jingoistic nationalism in favor of celebrating American individualism. One of my favorite works of academic criticism is Richard Slotkin’s seminal Regeneration Through Violence, which posits that men and women went went to recreate themselves on the frontier through physical conflict, and we see that here, just as we see strands of Slotkin’s Fatal Environment, which discusses how frontier expansion and the destruction of the Indians allowed westward expansion to occur. Both of these ideas are at play in RANGER, the former in John’s arc from book-driven lawyer to dirt-smart outlaw, and the latter through the film’s villains.

If Depp got to make the Tonto-half of the film and Bruckheimer got to design the Ranger-half, no one spent anytime with the villains, and Verbinski wastes three really good actors in three really nothing roles. Barry Pepper’s Captain Jay Fuller (but you’ll just assume he’s General Custer), Tom Wilkinson’s Latham Cole the railroad tycoon, and William Fichtner’s cannibalistic Butch Cavendish are all pulled from the Book of Hack Genre Writing. They all try and they all make these flat characters as effective as they can, but there’s nothing here for them to work with beyond worn-out, overplayed notes.

Even less can be said for Ruth Wilson’s Rebecca Reid, wife of Dan and apple of John’s eye. There’s literally nothing here but a dress for the men to fight over, which is a shame because anyone who’s seen the BBC’s Luther knows she can act. Had John’s character been as thoughtfully crafted as Tonto’s, we would have had more meat to the John/Rebecca/Dan triangle. Compare John and Rebecca to Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann and you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley infused their characters with life and passion, but Hammer and Wilson can never escape the limitations of their characters.

Verbinski feels most at home when he’s creating wildly inventive and elaborate action scenes and for my money I don’t think there’s anyone better right now at creating big budget action sequences. We’re supposed to say “Michael Bay” when we think of extravagant action sequences, but Verbinski is leaps and bounds ahead of what Bay puts on screen. Look at Bay’s Transformers movies, you can hardly ever tell what’s going on because the camera is so close and the robots look alike and all he wants to show is whizz-bang flash of metal and gears crap. In a Verbinski sequence, the camera is properly positioned so you can see absolutely everything you need to see. It’s beautiful to watch; the final sequence in RANGER is simply cinematic awesomeness, and if the bit with the horse running on top of the train doesn’t make you feel like a giddy seven-year old, you’re probably too old and cynical to have read this far. There’s a whole bunch of great action sequences, too, so whenever the film started to drag by focusing too much on John, there’s another spectacle around the corner to take your mind away from the crappy popcorn you spent $6 to buy and hate-eat.

There is one unquestioned star of THE LONE RANGER and that’s the horse. He’s hilarious from start to finish.

In fact, if you really want to play the PIRATES to RANGER Comparison Game, the horse is Captain Jack.

All told, THE LONE RANGER is an uneven film but hardly one that deserves all the scorn heaped on it. I can’t say this is a great film because too many of the characters are flat and the disconnect between the hardcore slaughter and the campy fun is too far. I laughed a whole lot over the course of the film, though, and I love the film’s storytelling device of having a very old Tonto tell this story to a kid at a county fair in the 1930s. Tonto is on display as “The Noble Savage” segment of a Wild West exhibit, and it’s hard not to see the meta-ness of Depp the Actor feeling like a man always on display. Tellingly, Old Man Tonto wears no make-up, suggesting that he’s finally made enough peace with his sins that he can show his real face to the world again. It’s also hard to miss that Tonto is the very embodiment of the Unreliable Narrator, being all old and leaving out details that his audience (a young boy wearing a Lone Ranger costume) notices and points out while the story is being told.

This is fitting given that we’re talking about the Wild West, where fact fights an eternally losing battle to fantasy, but I see this framing device a little different. For me, Old Man Tonto is the most real thing in the movie, which solidifies the emotional (if not factual) truth of the rest of the film. In what it is clearly the most boring post-credits scene in cinematic history, we watch an old, shuffling Tonto walk into the desert and away from the camera. I kept waiting for something to happen, for Tonto to pull a Verbal Kint and reveal that his frailty was an act, for him to meet up with Old Man Lone Ranger, for his suddenly alive crow to reappear, for Sam Jackson to show up wearing an eye-patch … but none of this happens. We look through the rolling credits to watch this old man shuffle off, slow and alone.

Bruckheimer and Disney get their big, humorous spectacle, but here at the end, it’s Depp and Verbinski who get the last word. Maybe as an audience we’ve become too jaded and too lazy. Depp’s wearing make-up again, and the more make-up he wears, the more we think he’s just playing another variation of the Depp Oddball.

That’s not what Tonto is, though, and maybe it takes an inquisitive kid to remind us we are allowed to look past the surface, and maybe it takes watching an old man take a long time to walk a short distance to remind us that there are people beneath all that make-up. Maybe the best comparison for Depp’s Tonto is Mark Twain’s Jim, a guy who gives you the face you expect in order to hide the face that he is.

__________

Gunfighter Gothic BOTU3When he’s not reviewing movies, Mark Bousquet is doing some creative writing himself. He is the author of multiple novels and collections, including The Haunting of Kraken Moor (horror), Gunfighter Gothic (weird western), Stuffed Animals for Hire (children lit), Dreamer’s Syndrome (urban fantasy), Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches (cosmic pulp), and Adventures of the Five (children lit). He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.

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