“I’m trying to figure out if this horse is stupid or just pretending to be stupid,” Tonto (Johnny Depp)–whose name in Spanish means “Stupid”–says while looking deeply into the eyes of the pearly white “spirit horse” supposedly guiding him to revenge and redemption.
The line struck me while watching Gore Verbinski’s $215+ million dud The Lone Ranger, one of the worst-reviewed pictures of 2013 which threatens, with its meager grosses over the holiday weekend, to be exactly the kind of death-blow fiasco threatening the current paradigm of studio moviemaking. The Lone Ranger was, as a concept, intuited by the critics and public as its own kind of dead horse–a popular radio, television, and cartoon icon from simpler times: dads and granddads might find something appealing, but this is the generation of 1980s Hasbro and Mattel toys. This misbegotten project serves little modern function as this particular “Buddy Cop” team, comprising the Lone Ranger and his loyal helper Tonto, belongs to regressive stereotypes of rugged white masculinity with the stoic noble savage at the wayside. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the main arbiters of (sometimes admittedly delicious) trash in Hollywood, casting Depp as Tonto — problematic in spite of the actor’s presumed Cherokee heritage — and directed by Verbinski, whose two latest Pirates of the Caribbean collaborations with Depp were superfluous special effects shipwrecks of high-starch blockbusting bloat, there’s every reason to presume this Horse is indeed Stupid. The trailer’s ramped style of CGI, BOM-de-BOM-BOM-BOM music, fast-cutting momentum, and eye-rolling comic asides defines what is soul crushing about the modern day Marvel-dominated franchise laden multiplex of high-octane short-attention-span videogame sensations. This movie’s existence pissed me off. The Lone Ranger just looks like everything that’s freaking wrong with the modern age.
But I saw the film. And Jesus. I now have to wonder: Was the horse just pretending to be stupid after all? Is there a more strangely perverse Hollywood “novelty” film to open on the July 4th weekend, whether in its rather loud subtext of angry politics or even in its offbeat way of revealing itself? The presumption was that The Lone Ranger, like Pirates, was going to kickstart another expensive Bruckheimer/Verbinski/Depp franchise in addition to making Armie Hammer, who plays the straight-laced Ranger, a star. It would fit into that Bigger & Louder is Better paradigm of spare-no-expense studio noise, its drive for profits alongside a carpet-bomb campaign obscuring any sense of social responsibility (Subway unfortunately got stuck with the food tie-in). The Lone Ranger, from beginning to end, feels strangely personal for the filmmakers, anachronistically photographic for an event blockbuster, riddled with detail and allusion, and even, as if in accord with the passing of a race that’s had their land stolen from them, understanding of its own tragic decline, as if it knew it would bomb and then perhaps be reevaluated and championed in the years to come.
Negative reviews and my impulse to “take it easy” led me to not think of taking notes during the screening, and I didn’t write anything in the immediate days following. But, if my memory of details are hazy, I can’t shake The Lone Ranger from my mind. What I saw was a reckless adventure that courts derision, an imperfect, offbeat, and longish Western — and really a true Western more than an amusement park blockbuster — about how the mythologies of America and American entertainment intertwine. As if to acknowledge our summer movie expectations, its first images are of a carnival of amusement park rides, the incomplete constructs of San Francisco in the background of 1933, the year of the Lone Ranger’s radio debut. The camera follows a young boy in love with the spoon-fed legend of the Lone Ranger (he wears the mask, the hat, and has the toy gun) into a waxworks tent exhibit of American history. He peers up at “The Noble Savage,” an old Native American mannequin standing in front of a tent and matted background of Monument Valley. Then, quite creepily, the “Savage”‘s eyes move and looks squarely at the boy, who responds by instinctively firing his gun.
It’s a weird prologue, for one thing the boy believing his toy gun has any power over a moving specter, and for another how it acknowledges the inadequacy of movie makeup to truly capture a semblance of real life, as Old Man Johnny Depp is locked in the wax of an appropriated image, “Tonto,” a white actor dressed up as a Native American. This Tonto is an exploited employee, frozen in time in his “uniform” of indigenous clothes before putting on a suit and tie and walking off into the weathered terrain, a somber final image that recalls both Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) John Ford’s The Searchers (to which The Lone Ranger pays much homage) and even the Tramp — emulated by Depp in Benny and Joon – at the conclusion of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In all of these cases, modernity has not only rendered these characters extinct, but also the film styles in which they thrived — John Ford seeing classic Hollywood eclipsed by new acting methods and a richer perspective on American history, and Chaplin’s visual ballets of sublime choreography suffocating under the oppressive weight of Sound.
Like the 120-year-old Jack Crabbe (Dustin Hoffman) in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, the aged Tonto serves as narrator to the acutely attentive boy, who, much like the most aggravating of smart-asses one would encounter at a Geek convention (such as I did during a few panels this last week), points out continuity errors and how Tonto seems to be getting the story wrong, the first flashback entrance of the Ranger, aka John Reid, being a bank robbery with the Ranger and Tonto as the thieves. Why would a famous lawman, even a renegade one, be a bank-robber? The myths are literalized and linearized by the fans, the meaning of the Mask — which Tonto instructs never to take off — lost as it becomes a costume prop. Tonto’s musings in the exhibit sometimes interrupt the action of The Lone Ranger saga, his past and present tied up in similar gestures and props indicating that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily true, though it obviously means something for him. I think a lot of critics and viewers are too flippant with this film, The Lone Ranger. It’s far from cynical, though like some of the Ranger and Tonto’s plans, maybe a little irresponsible.
Law student John Reid is on his way out West to visit his rugged Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale). The twist in the relationship is that Dan is married to the woman John’s always loved, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), a scenario drawn straight from The Searchers. Dan patiently waits at a railway station for the arrival of the mangle-mouthed outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, reliably excellent), Verbinski’s attention to detail at this setting evoking the opening to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. The Lone Ranger is very much like Leone’s epic of expansion and revenge, with avenging figures from the past materializing like ghosts in the landscape as rail barons (such as one played by Stephen Root here) struggle, through corruption, to align the young fractured nation. But whereas Leone and Henry Fonda’s lethal gunslinger Frank called the shots over the money-men, now the politician, Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), has maneuvered things so that he can control everything: commerce, law, politics, the military (here represented by Barry Pepper’s Custer-like corruptible cavalry man), and of course what to do with the Comanches, with whom there are treaties. John, a reader of John Locke’s ideas of establishing a civil government for the people, believes there are rational ways of due process to deal with all conflicts. Dan, who’s mingled with the Comanches (he wears a Comanche necklace), understands things on the frontier are more complicated.
The Ivy League “rational” lawman of ideal abstractions and the hard-edged “real-world” lawman of the frontier recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, where the chief irony was that the violent and renegade actions of the John Wayne character allowed Jimmy Stewart’s political man to establish political order in the West. And as Ford’s film reminded us, legends supersede reality (“Always print the legend”), their duplicities established as necessary evils. The Lone Ranger fools us a few times, for example presenting a Comanche raid that turns out to be Cavendish’s henchmen in disguise, a staged massacre meant to rupture an Indian treaty. Beyond machinations, however, we’re reminded of how nature is “out of balance,” with carnivorous rabbits and horses on rooftops and treetops. Any “established” law and order here is inherently twisted and sick, malignant like the scorpions that are roused from the soil. Tonto seeks the cannibalistic “Wendigo” spirit, projected onto the butcher Cavendish (who cuts out a character’s heart and, if we see things through a reflective eye correctly, eats it). But the Wendigo doesn’t belong to metaphysics. The butchery of Cavendish is endorsed by respectable members of society.
Genre films mirror cultural attitudes and problems, be it The Searchers with its will to reflect on itself in 1956, Peckinpah’s nihilistic orgies of violence through the Vietnam years, Penn’s Left-Handed Gun and Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks, Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and finally another great misperceived flop, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The Lone Ranger‘s masked man halts trains with the words “Constitution” and “Liberty” emblazoned on them, when the owners of those trains perpetuate corruption and genocide while exploiting and taking advantage of the meek. The hero is a figure well suited for the Anonymous Era of neuromancing activist hackers standing up to the gangsterism of the modern day economic and foreign policies, when Whistle Blowers are criminalized before people think about why the whistle was blown to begin with.
That leaves an unsettling feeling with The Lone Ranger, tying its reflection of our modern world to the one lost by the Native Americans, much more accustomed to the injustices of a monstrously obtuse conqueror than we are. In both scenarios, technology brings the world under a greedy thumb, the Iron Horse of rail in the 19th century and the World Wide Web of the present.
There’s still much that remains troubling about it all, however. I can understand the offense many will take with Depp’s portrayal of Tonto, and how they would brush off his words about how he wants to inspire young men on reservations. But Depp, for whatever reason, was bent on making this film. He’s always had a thing for outsiders, and one might well consider his friendship with Marlon Brando, one of the Hollywood stars most vocal about the depiction of Native Americans in film. We may also remember his role in Jim Jarmusch’s Acid Western Dead Man (1995), a picture incredibly sensitive about Native Americans. It’s often forgotten that Depp also portrayed a Native American in his little seen directorial debut The Brave (co-starring Brando), about a man who agrees to be tortured and killed for a snuff film production so that his family can have a better life. The story is an unsubtle metaphor for Hollywood’s history with indigenous people, and I wonder if Depp believed Tonto would be a friendlier variation on that same theme, smuggled into the amiable confines of a Walt Disney production. There’s even a moment in The Brave when one of the central character’s threatening “employers” says with menace, “See you in the movies, Tonto.”
The result is something too long, sure, but most Westerns are. The Lone Ranger at times may grapple with the elements that sicken me about movies, but most of its set pieces are terrific meldings of stunts and effects work, with a fine sense of clarity absent from its peers. Its longishness also reminded me of how this film isn’t afraid to breathe and take its time at moments, quieting down and recalibrating momentum. Hammer, whose career is quite possibly in detrimental turnaround because of this picture, is perfect with his comic timing and clueless demeanor, beginning with a sight-gag involving a child’s doll on a train that, for whatever reason, had me stitches long after it had passed, and concluding with the confusion over his title and catchphrase. Prescient of its failure as I think it was, I believe The Lone Ranger had no ambitions to be a franchise kick-starter. Depp and company make the satire and melancholy of genocide and expansion palpable.
Even so, like Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate the fault lies in its carelessness with money. I work to justify The Lone Ranger on its surprisingly rewarding aesthetic and thematic grounds, and am overjoyed by its offbeat “wrongness” within tired summer movie expectations–I think a lot of what I acclaim in the film is what rubs other people the wrong way. As Andrew O’Hehir observes, had this been a less expensive film, and I honestly believe it could have been, it may have been warmly received as an eccentric and subversive summer oddity. But its production and distribution is representative of reckless waste and hubris on the part of, if not its artistic contributors, the clueless studio businessmen making the high stake deals. Unfortunately, the artists will probably be the ones punished.
I’m not saying no executives will be fired. But Disney and other studios will likely be gearing up more $200+ million escapist events, working hard to sand-out the eccentricities that betray the audience’s anticipated back-beat rhythm, rather than a smaller-scale mid-level adventure that doesn’t have to make more than half a billion dollars. Maybe that’s what the final image of the suited Tonto walking into the unfriendly terrain will denote for us, regarding the movies. That frontier, with its unmastered edges, is almost extinct. Even if Tonto and the Ranger succeed in their adventure, the film’s bookends make clear how their legend has also been conquered, squandered, bought and sold, and flattened. Time is a recurring theme in the film, and while the norm is to make it so that a story may continue forever and be a studio’s bi-annual ATM machine, The Lone Ranger wonders about races, ideals, genres, and aesthetic models on the downside of the tyrannical clock.
There are already some viewers who have noted the unique joys of Lone Ranger. Like Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar, both unfairly condemned because of the money spent on them, there very well may be some kind of cult audience who will come to appreciate what Verbinski and Depp have done, problematic aspects and all. Yet I’m not so sure if where the movies are headed will be conducive to the library of retrospect that home video and repertory movie house programs have granted. Serialized television, streaming, and event movie production accentuates the importance of right now over rediscovering yesterday. But I can’t be sure. The fate of a motion picture seems determined hours after its release (if not before: Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous sci-fi monster vs. robots extravaganza Pacific Rim and the Jeff Bridges vehicle RIPD have already been prophesied to bomb: meaning three consecutive weeks of Hollywood disasters). Over the weekend I was arguing with someone who (drunkenly and fanatically) stressed the artistic quality of videogames as opposed to what insignificant “film nerds” and “critics who don’t mean shit” (he was referring to both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis at The New York Times) wrote about and spent time adulating. He stressed that written history didn’t matter, as if it was put together by an Illuminati-like cabal of ignorant elitists. What mattered was how people responded to something upon impact. And I think his side is winning.