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Film Review: The Lone Ranger (2013)

The Lone Ranger (2013; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

The most unfortunate thing about the bellyflop that The Lone Ranger took at the box office is that it may lead to a reactive proscription by a skittish Hollywood of the budgets and creative freedoms of the film’s director, Gore Verbinski. Helmsman of the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the American remake of The Ring and Rango, the fantastic, loopy, Oscar-winning animated deconstruction of the heroic tropes of the Western, Verbinski is one of the most consistently inventive and intellectually-tilted directors working in Hollywood’s blockbuster field today. Even a consensus failure like The Lone Ranger displays feverish creativity, technical acumen, and self-reflexive intelligence in not inconsiderable amounts.

Honestly, though, fuck the consensus. Although The Lone Ranger is certainly no roaring success (it’s likely Verbinski’s weakest effort since the second Pirates film), it’s no more a failure as a film than any number of aesthetically equivalent blockbusters that were far more profitable. It’s pretty fun at key moments (especially opening and closing train chase sequences), and addresses (and redresses) some of the central myths of American westward expansion circulated in the cultural discourse by classic Hollywood Westerns. Like Rango, the movie provides a homage to the influence of these seminal films while offering a learned, progressive pushback against their less savoury implications, in particular their symbolic erasure of Native American peoples from the continuing story of the United States of America.

Verbinski and his screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the Pirates scribes, had their original, werewolf-featuring screenplay rewritten by Justin Haythe) were perhaps embarking on a nobly doomed exercise with The Lone Ranger. Seeking to adapt a cumbersomely old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians property that never ventured far beyond its basic genre elements into a post-colonial atonement for the ill-acknowledged crimes of Caucasian-American settlement of the West and into an impressive, action-packed summer tentpole release is a surefire ambitious folly of massive proportions. Throw in Johnny Depp in redface as a character synonymous with the unsettling noble savage archetype and you’re baiting disaster to take a swing at your kisser.

But, as Verbinski managed to accomplish in Rango, even the tiredest of generic tropes are prefaced by knowing, self-reflexive commentary. Depp’s Tonto first appears in a 1930s travelling carnival’s Old West museum, posing as a living statue next to taxidermied bison and grizzlies, a label below his display cube reading, “The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat”. Tonto relates his adventures with the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) to a young boy dressed as the legendary cowboy hero, who probes his tale with doubts à la Fred Savage interrupting Peter Falk’s reading of The Princess Bride. The narrative framing and the pre-emptive demarcation of the terms of the trope serve to mitigate its discriminatory implications, but only so far. Furthermore, Tonto’s reproduction of stereotypical enactments of decidedly non-authentic Native spiritualist practices are dismissed by his fellow Comanche tribesmen as not reflective of their culture but of only his personal soft-headedness. This aligns well enough with Depp’s performance, which, despite his likely-dubious claims of Native-American ancestry and “adequate” pronunciation of words of the Comanche language, follows his favoured thespianic method of layering physical quirks and personality eccentricities onto unreliable trickster figure characters.

Tonto’s quasi-spiritual oddities (which include a dead crow headpiece which he repeatedly attempts to feed birdseed to) are focused around his personal quest as a younger man in 1869 for vengeance against white men who have perpetrated a grievous wrong against his people, namely fearsome outlaw Butch Cavendish (the gloriously filthy William Fitchner) and ruthless railroad magnate Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). Chained inside a train car next to Cavendish in the film’s serpentine kickoff sequence, Tonto’s attempt to eliminate what he believes to be a malevolent “wendigo” spirit in a human body is interfered with by the titular protagonist in his pre-masked state as a buttoned-down future Texas District Attorney named John Reid, who happens to be returning west on the same train. Our first glimpse of Reid plays hyperbolically on his putative squareness, as we’re lead to believe that he’s a plain-dressed Protestant evangelical flipping devotedly through a Bible (his “bible” is John Locke’s Treatises of Government).

Reid is returning home to Colby, Texas (which looks suspiciously like Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border), where Cole is supervising the driving of the last spike on the transcontinental railroad. He plans to bring civilized law to the Wild West, as his more rugged Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale) has been doing in a more rough and ready manner while he’s been off in the East book-learnin’. Dan married John’s childhood sweetheart Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and had a son, but there’s still an old frisson between John and Rebecca, who lives on a remote ranch on the border with Comanche country.

Would you like some oats, Noble Spirit Horse? An apple? Perhaps some tasty scorpions, hmm?

Anyway, Dan Reid and his posse ride off in pursuit of Cavendish and his gang amongst the towering sandstone buttes of classic Western movie iconography, a newly deputized John in tow. Ambushed due to the treachery of one of their number, the Rangers are slaughtered by Cavendish and his thugs, and the infamous gunslinger cuts out and eats Dan’s heart, which John witnesses before fluttering out of consciousness. Brutal enough stuff for a PG-13 adaptation of a gentle boy’s adventure serial, but all fairly true to the Lone Ranger’s established origin story down through its many versions over the decades (minus the heart-devouring, natch). It also faces up to the vicious violence that was an undeniable feature of the lawless West and was so often justified and scrubbed up in the genre classics being referenced and deconstructed by Verbinski.

Left for dead, John Reid is found by Tonto. Reluctantly following the lead of a mysterious and distinctly odd white “spirit horse” (which finds its way onto roofs and into trees, eats some scorpions, and generally steals every scene it is in), Tonto nurses the fancy lawyer back to health as a “spirit walker” ally in his wendigo-hunting quest, although he would have preferred his more dashing brother, as a running gag reminds us. Donning a mask at the Comanche’s vaguely-justified request, John sets out to avenge his brother, protect his widow and son, prevent a war between white settlers and the Comanche, and halt a trainload of ill-gotten silver that will finance Cole’s hostile takeover of the railroad.

This setup is even more lengthy onscreen than my non-brief description of it, and the pursuit of Cavendish and Cole sets Tonto and the Ranger along an even longer road of cross-country travel, captures and switchbacks rather similar to the plot construction of the Pirates films. It stretches on largely pointlessly, introducing one-joke supporting characters like Helena Bonham-Carter’s brothel madam with an ivory leg concealing a shotgun and Barry Pepper’s bluff, empty-headed General Custer parody of a cavalry officer. It does build up to the aforementioned climactic, spatially inventive showpiece chase sequence involving two intercrossing trains, which is quite fantastic. Hammer and Depp have some decent comedic chemistry in between the extraneous narrative u-turns. Wilson’s Rebecca flashes some formidable quasi-feminist teeth before being required to revert to the damsel in distress. There are some loopy touches from Verbinski’s vault of surrealist imagination, like vicious, razor-toothed hares that eat meat. And no movie that features Stephen Root in muttonchops exclaiming “My gluteus!” can be entirely dismissed out of hand.

Indeed, what was feared to be The Lone Ranger‘s certain downfall is really its most notable feature. Concerns that Depp’s wacky Indian antics would diminish the historical displacement, dispossession, and borderline genocide of the land’s established inhabitants even further are not entirely unfounded, but this is a film well aware of the crimes of history that places itself firmly against the narrative of progress that buttressed those crimes. The Ranger and Tonto have a little comedic bit where each reacts in his own way to the thought of stopping the construction of the railroad; Reid, despite his upright sense of justice, is all for the steel road, but Tonto, no pure, natural primitive, is dead set against it. Tonto challenges Reid’s unthinking characterization of him as a savage, and the Comanche chief that Reid meets (Saginaw Grant) is wordly and wise in unconventional ways. A literal and symbolic massacre of First Nations is even enacted, as a desperately brave Comanche force charges a U.S. Army detachment only to be mown mercilessly down by a gatling gun.

Unlike Rango‘s meta-commentary on the Western heroic tropes, however, The Lone Ranger‘s evident objections to the deprivations of westward expansion never coalesce around any specific critique. They crop up in symbols and indeterminate crossovers from the elderly Tonto’s storytelling frame, like the candy-striped peanut bag that Tonto takes from the Ranger-boy and later drops into a posse member’s grave. Cole habitually checks a shiny pocketwatch, the precision of the clockface heralding profound temporal and existential shifts as a direct result of technological advancement (it was the railroads, after all, that supplied the need of standardized time). Tonto possesses a similar watch, traded by Cole years ago for information that proved devastating to Tonto’s village. Tonto’s watch is tellingly broken; Chief Big Bear repairs a pocketwatch while telling the Ranger about Tonto’s past. Cole receives a new pocketwatch as a gift of gratitude for completing the railway, while the Ranger declines the same item after defeating the agents of greed and rapine attending the settlement process, implying that his stewardship will skew to tradition rather than forward-moving exploitation.

Like its technical and entertainment elements, The Lone Ranger‘s ideological features are scattershot, unruly, and a little crazy. Such disorder is par for the course in this rambling mess of a blockbuster that only occasionally hits its mark and even more occasionally chooses to feign having a mark to hit at all. Like Disney’s similar folly of the year before, John Carter of Mars, it could be argued that The Lone Ranger failed to connect successfully with a wide mass audience due to the relative lack of popular awareness of its outdated subject material due to its long dormancy in the public imagination. Verbinski’s resurrection of the Lone Ranger myth as a counter-narrative to its long-established ideological support for manifest destiny was a potential stroke of genius that, unfortunately, was hemmed in by so many competing concerns that it only intermittently lived up to its promise. Did The Lone Ranger do well commercially? No, it did not. Does it constitute a creative Dunkirk for the often exciting director Verbinski? Not entirely. Is it far more interesting than its now-calcified reputation as an irredeemable flop will admit? Most certainly.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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