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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives"

When Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s Only God Forgives premiered at Cannes in May, there was a chorus of booing followed by pans. Having seen the film and thinking about what critics and audiences were expecting from it, I can see why. But I also ravenously luxuriated in it, my eyes infatuated with its languid rhythm and saturated images, my ears adoring its ambient textures and stretched silences. Greased with Cliff Martinez’s silky synth score, it’s a film in which one alertly bathes as it massages the senses.  In alignment with its strained Oedipal themes, where a muted son has to sever himself from a crassly verbose mother, the fleshy warm glow is womb-like.

Only God Forgives

Two years earlier, the pair’s first collaboration Drive won Refn a directing prize at Cannes. Though not a hit, it was well on its way to becoming a cult film. But the less-than-welcoming reception for the follow-up was imminent. Drive has its fair share of intelligent cinephile detractors (Quentin Tarantino said of it, “Nice try”) just as it had disappointed mainstream audience members not expecting the slow-burn urban fairy tale when the trailer (apparently) promised a Fast and Furious-tempered action vehicle. Gosling, meanwhile, has been caught in a handsome stoicism that is increasingly grating: looking at you quietly, talking gently with the ghost of a smile, and then punching people in the teeth (after Drive, think of Gangster Squad, The Place Beyond the Pines).  Only God Forgives feeds into this tiresome Gosling type. His character, Julian, runs a boxing club in Thailand that fronts for a drug business controlled by his family, including older and more assured brother Billy (Tom Burke) and mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Julian wordlessly stares while his mouth lingers in shadows. Calm, silent, gazing, beautiful, chaste–this is very much like the Driver relocated to Thailand.

Refn’s new film isn’t as accessible as his previous one.  With Drive, audiences could be fascinated and puzzled with the enigmatic Driver, but in ways relate — or at least be comfortable with — the familiar noir types in Hossein Amini’s screenplay like Carey Mulligan’s single mom, Albert Brooks’ delightful and lethal gangster Bernie Rose, Bryan Cranston’s crippled mechanic, Oscar Isaac’s ex-con struggling to go straight, and even Ron Perlman’s despicable and vulgar “Fine Ass Pussymobile” bully.  The beautiful contemporary synth-pop soundtrack plugs into the story’s romanticism as it flirts with an attractive filmic iconography preceding it, of Western heroes like Shane, Kenneth Anger’s leather/cars/pop fetish fest Scorpio Rising, Melville’s Le Samourai, and the glitzy sheen of ’80s B-movies.


All that made Drive a richer experience, as Refn, working on assignment, was like an alien making the familiar L.A. terrain seem startlingly new. It was a fairy tale and super-hero movie, and its off-beat pathological longing left the ultraviolence (which only figures into the picture at about the 45-minute mark) as a problematic afterthought. The Driver’s protective vengeance might have been seen as sleek noir posturing and flexing, but I felt that this character resembled the titular character (Ryan O’Neal) from Walter Hill’s The Driver or one of  Jean-Pierre Melville’s or Michael Mann’s criminal loners (James Caan in Thief, Robert De Niro in Heat) less than Mann’s scoptophiliac killer Francis Dollarhyde from Manhunter. That sense of pathology made the picture feel more fantastic and twisted in its solipsism, in addition to being more tragic.  Gosling’s bouts of rage stemmed more from a frustrated–and even psychopathic–sense of inadequacy and apart-ness than heroism. The “victory” over Bernie and the gangsters at the conclusion felt like a beautiful delusion and fantasy more than cathartic triumph. Or maybe it was both at once, which makes Drive more and more interesting to me, as if I’m losing my mind while watching it.

In Only God Forgives, the sense of the hero’s real-world inadequacy is addressed.  The passively observational and silent Julian is in the shadow of his brother, a man with aggressive eyes with specific demands to satiate his fetishes. Looking through a window into a room of prostitutes (all lounging on a set that feels like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey), Billy says to the manager, with chilling affectless speech, “Are those women? I want to fuck a girl. I want to fuck a 14-year-old girl.”  Violently making his way to another bordello, Billy rapes and murders a teen prostitute who happens to be the pimp’s daughter. The investigating police lieutenant, Chang, known as “the Angel of Death” (Vithaya Pansringarm, who exudes a magnificent presence), allows the father to do whatever he wants to the placid and almost catatonic Billy–before having his own arm sliced off by Lt. Chang as punishment for selling off his daughter. We see the after effects of a terrible bludgeoning, Billy’s cranium opened up and spilling curdled brain matter.

When Julian hesitates to avenge the murder because of the context (“I’m sure he had his reasons,” he says of the pimp father), mother Crystal shames and humiliates him. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” she says when Julian tries to explain things. A real man would have brought her the head of Billy’s murderer on a plate. At a dinner, she points out to Julian’s date Mai (Ratha Phongam), a prostitute who dances at a club Julian frequents, how Julian (whose name is feminine) always envied Billy for, among other things, the elder brother’s superior penis.  After the prostitute’s father has been killed by some of Crystal’s hired thugs, Lt. Chang looks at Julian and judges he had nothing to do with it (“He’s not the one”)–not because of evidence, but because, so it seems, he intuits that Julian doesn’t have it in him to carry out vengeance the way men like Billy and Chang do.

Only God Forgives

It’s a darker avenue of fantasy where what’s dream and what’s real tumble together with uncertainty. The film’s shady and maze-like interiors reminded me of David Lynch’s Red Room from his Twin Peaks universe, particularly as used during the prequel film Fire Walk With Me and the television finale, where characters are lost between real and unreal, waking and dream, good and evil, White Lodge and Black. Characters speak in riddles, their dialogue recorded backward and played forward. Fire Walk With Me was also booed at Cannes, but it demands viewers adjust to its wavelength.  Alongside its Laura Palmer storyline of incest and murder was the mystery of the Red Room, the other-world where garmonbozia (pain and suffering) is dished out through bargains between supernatural characters.  Lynch’s abstract methods are in sync with what I think Refn is doing with Julian, who is wandering through the landscape of the film as through the quandary of his mind. Only God Forgives has other Lynchian motifs like singers on stages (with karaoke instead of lip-syncing) and a terrifically rich sound design of saturated noise and ocean-deep silences that drown everything, much like what we hear in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and INLAND EMPIRE (or Kubrick’s The Shining). As with Lynch’s universe, I don’t think the bell-ringing of movie references of Refn function as a base so much as another texture, surrounding characters who drift tonally through a labyrinth of artifice and longing.

Fire Walk With Me

The picture is problematic because of its sexuality. But I don’t think Refn wants to do anything progressive so much as raw and ecstatic, and that means delving into the insecurities of his male protagonists (or himself as a filmmaker) and projecting them onto everything we see. Like with Drive, Gosling’s strong-silent-type hero is chaste but the ubiquitous sexuality of Only God Forgives‘ lurid clubs and bordellos, in addition to the profane and all-too-direct dialogue of Crystal and Billy (Crystal memorably calls Mai a “cum-dumpster”), makes that chastity all the more alienating for the protagonist.  While watching Mai dance, Julian’s gaze becomes a fantasy where he’s tied to a chair as she masturbates in front of him, her imagined climax coinciding with an image of his dismemberment, as a sword comes from the darkness and down on his outstretched arms. Speech, sex, and violence swirl in a tainted soup for Julian (and Refn), and stuck in the confines of his mind and gaze, he’s unable to do what he sees around him, what others can do so easily.  The cutting in the scene, where her groin shifts to his, and the fantasy doubles for cabaret performance, indicates how locked up Julian is within himself. We watch this world that Julian seemingly is apart from and wonder if he’s somehow the inventor of what we’re seeing.

That’s how Only God Forgives functions in the vein of a violent Asian-influenced revenge fantasy. Whereas Drive gave audiences the satisfaction of its B-movie set-up with the hateful evil-doers foiled and (in the case of that infamous elevator, literally) stamped out, Refn refuses such a release here, as the hero’s victory and transformation is his own immolation. Only God Forgives indulges in the grotesque with its visceral ultraviolence, for example a character’s rib cage bursting through a wound after he’s been sliced open. But the violence is spread out between luxuriously moody sequences of staring and wonder. It’s also off-screen most of the time. Refn often denies us seeing the penetration of bludgeoning, stabbing, and shooting. And as the story addresses Julian’s gendered inadequacies of what being a “real man” is supposed to mean, Refn addresses how we intake violence as viewers. Before a grueling session of violence commences in a crowded club, Lt. Chang says, “Girls, keep your eyes closed. Men, take a good look.” Chang then gets all Duke of Cornwall on a poor chap’s eyeballs before going a little Mr. Blonde on the ears.

Maybe it’s that I’m not a real man, but my eyes were admittedly not open for the whole proceeding. “You can’t see what is good for you,” Chang says as his point goes into the vile jelly of the eyeball. I don’t know if Refn wants us to look at everything (I have the same problem with the elevator boot-stomp in Drive, where I think the audience’s double is the horrified Carey Mulligan; and then there are those intestines from Valhalla Rising), but there definitely is a masculine code in Only God Forgives which causes anxiety for Julian, and then it becomes our anxiety.  I have my problems with Refn’s violence as I do with Tarantino’s gleeful “movie violence” (as opposed to Scorsese’s philosophy of violence, where he wants you to be horrified and look away), but at least it’s not blindly cathartic. It’s more like an endurance test.

Only God Forgives

Is Only God Forgives punishment? Not to be at all in agreement with its detractors, but it’s a sincere question as to whatever Refn’s motives are. The blonde haired and blue-eyed Hollywood hero isn’t the one doing the tolling out in this picture; it’s this Asian “Angel of Death,” whose katana sword, though pulled from behind his back, supernaturally materializes from nowhere.  Revenge violence is fantasy that locks us in a spellbound gaze much like Julian’s sexual fantasy with Mai, during which eyes  looking directly at us before he’s untied–and dismembered in this separate filmic/fantastical plane.  Chang may be a corrupt police lieutenant, but he’s a warm family man who reads to his daughter at bedtime, and his crafty violence is inflicted on pimps or thugs who’ve conspired against him and fellow officers. Julian and his family are drug dealers and foreign invaders–much like Refn’s film is invading Thailand–a Danish director and American star leading a crew of mostly Thai employees. Crystal refers to the natives as “yellow niggers” and doesn’t have time for their property or perspectives.  The confrontation of familial revenge is the song we’re expecting, but Refn changes the lyrics and point-of-view.

Refn’s pictures of lethal silent observers provoke us to wonder about perspective (people have told me that re-watching Drive while thinking that the Driver is a delusional psychopath changed their opinion of the film); the director could be “having a wank” (a phrase people love to use when describing indulgent filmmakers, I guess) with his web of allusions, his films a kind of midnight-movie karaoke. But the karaoke displayed in Only God Forgives points to a sense of how Refn’s appropriations are reverent, even strangely religious. Instead of good-time off-key humor, the karaoke crowd — mostly of policemen watching Chang at the mic — stares and listens attentively as if during a ritual. The artifice is part of the design. Refn’s film in tone, movement, and design feels very Kubrickian, and with the deep reds against chilly blues I was particularly reminded of Eyes Wide Shut (whose principal lighting cameraman, Larry Smith, is Only God Forgives‘ cinematographer), another film set on the blurry boundaries of dream and waking, artifice and myth, where the primal and haunting sounds of the Somerton orgy are undercut when we see how Nick Nightingale’s organ is hooked up to an amplifier. That film, with its scenario of a man set on revenge fucking with strangers as retaliation against a spouse who’s revealed her fantasies of infidelity, also, like Only God Forgives, denies the protagonist–and audience–the expectant orgasm.

Only God Forgives

From what I’ve read, the negative reviews about Only God Forgives are neglectful of its title which denotes something religious. Here, Refn continues to think about transformation: we see the metamorphosis with criminal-artist Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy) in Bronson, the silent one-eyed viking (Madds Mikkelsen) — who gives himself up for sacrifice to American natives (and may be the god Odin)  — in Valhalla Rising, and the quiet Driver who becomes a violent action-hero savior, dying and resurrecting with Drive‘s final moments, the College song reminding us that he’s become a “real human being and a real hero.” With its cavernous hallways and crimson dream-like environs, Only God Forgives is like its own temple or church, the plot secondary to a ritual’s solemn function. Gorgeously rendered, its movements and atmosphere are wholly engrossing. The implication is that Julian, like Bronson, One-Eye, and the Driver–in his failure as a hero–becomes a “god,” if only in his own head, or the hermetical universe of the film.

The boxing club where Julian works is replete with its own gods and icons, the statues and pictures of the fighters from the past. Julian and Billy groom adolescents for the ring, and we could see this as a factory where aggression is manufactured. But the boy led to the ring by Julian–which feels like a sacrificial altar–catches the riotous crowd off-guard when he kneels and prays before his fight. As he does with much of the film’s violence, Refn declines showing us a victorious blow and instead cuts backstage afterward. His emphasis is on the ritualistic element, and the young fighter’s meditative sensibility is linked to his trainer, the watchful Julian, so different from the aggressive automaton Billy.

Chang has a sense of sage conscientiousness distinct from other characters.  He leaves the stations of the cross in his wake, but what of mercy (the “forgiveness” of the title)?  Led to the hideout of a poor man who was hired by Crystal to kill him, he slices open the ratting informant but, presumably, lets the other man live.  This other man tells Chang that he’s ready to face the consequences but pleads “spare my son,” a handicapped child whose eyes stare at us into the camera and refuse to look away from the carnage.  The man accepts responsibility and his concerns are unselfish.

Only God Forgives

This marvelous and unforgettable sequence, with that child’s inscrutable and unflinching face looking at us/Chang, reminded me again of where I was coming from with this pulp revenge story.  Julian’s family is representative of a privileged class.  Crystal verbally abuses workers at the luxurious hotel in which she stays. Billy takes advantage of poor working girls and their families, so poor they are compelled to sell off their daughters. Chang, our presumed antagonist, is fighting on behalf of the proletariat. He’s God’s messenger bringing justice and retribution, ascending to the 42nd floor to confront the nefarious and terrible Kali-Ma mother Crystal.

Julian is a movie hero who was born into the house of villains, and Only God Forgives rather unsubtly delves into his struggle to return to–or be severed from–the womb. It might sound, in our post-Freudian time of academic flippancy, a little (or a lot) pretentious, but I think Only God Forgives works because it hits some uncomfortable primal cords, in its solipsistic and masculine cell, relating to Refn’s sense of cinema that ring true. Refn himself says, “The idea was to make a movie that takes place in the vagina and I wondered what that would look like. Man’s fear of sexuality is the basis of all horror from the male perspective.”  I think there’s something cheeky about his words, but it’s also sincere.  The draped red confines of the film’s clubs have a corporeal feeling, and Julian’s fascination or desire for sex is not procreative but precocious. His fetish is to see hands, his instruments of violence, in orifices (his first violent assault in a club has him slapping–not punching–two male patrons and dragging one of them through a hallway by the mouth).  In a film that confuses reality for dream, it’s possible that what we hear Crystal say is in his self-loathing and sexually anxious imagination (such as that colorful vaginal euphemism “cum dumpster”). Scott Thomas leaves an incredible impression as Crystal, and seeing how she seems to be existing on an alternate plane of existence from the rest of the film’s characters, the performance is a work of art not out of line with what Julian may have concocted in his imagination–though she governs his movements, even if he knows they’re irrational.


She is the terrible mother who will eventually beg Julian to protect her, who was told by doctors to “terminate” the pregnancy she had with him, and who voices the hidden secret of what he’s done with his bare hands to his father. Having given birth to him she now admits that she’ll never understand him and never will. She’s a woman who might as well be conversing with herself and naming all of the son’s sexual insecurities. Julian really wants to get back inside of her (yeah…he does), as if to do everything over or will himself out of existence.

His confrontation with Chang at the boxing club is an anticlimax of atonement (and one of the reasons audiences who dug Drive and Tarantino’s revenge movies will be disappointed with Refn here). He’s not a worthy adversary for Chang, but his will to receive punishment, as someone who doesn’t feel he deserves to live, is what’s remarkable.  The film’s structure, as sacrament more than plot-driven narrative, is reminiscent of Raging Bull, also about a self-destructive man who takes punches like he doesn’t want to live. Redemption in that film wasn’t verbal or narrative, but came with the audience seeing a man who was the worst kind of sinner. “That’s entertainment!” becomes a kind of Holy Rite.

Only God Forgives

The instinct in revenge is the same for revenge-movie-going: self-satisfaction.  Refn’s film is a self-flagellating exercise where we’re meant to contemplate otherness, be it races, reasons, or perspectives. The opening credits refuse to translate themselves from Thai to English for us. Words flow like money from Crystal’s mouth and are used to control others, along with aggression. Julian’s most verbal moment is when he walks on the streets with Mai after introducing her to his mother. She says that she doesn’t want to keep the dress he bought her and he wrathfully tells her to take it off immediately. But silence is cinema for Refn, and the ritual of solitary gazing, like Chang and the handicapped child looking at each other, or like Julian looking at another child in the film, whom he has been instructed to kill, shifts perspectives and makes people more receptive–a thought coinciding with the symbolic castration/silencing (the reality of which is uncertain) preceding the picture’s concluding karaoke moment of a spellbound audience listening to the Angel of Death.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"The Lone Ranger": Stupid or Just Pretending to be Stupid?

“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.

Lone Ranger

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.

Lone Ranger

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.

The Searchers

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 WestThe 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.

Lone Ranger

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 GateThe 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.

Anonymous: "Never take off the mask."

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 Brave

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.

Lone Ranger

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.