This is one of the most bizarre and uneasy summer films ever released by Disney. A movie that resurrects a property that was anything but hot and uses it to skewer what it once stood for. In San Francisco in 1933 a young boy dressed in a white cowboy hat and a black mask, the costume of the Lone Ranger, wanders into a hall of curiosities at a traveling fair. There he sees stuffed lions and other exotica and a figure of an elderly Native American in a case painted to look like Monument Valley. The exhibit is labeled “The Noble Savage,” and as the boy approaches the Native American moves and speaks. It is Tonto (Johnny Depp), the associate of the boy’s idol, and he has decided to tell the boy a story.That story includes John Reid (Armie Hammer), a lawyer in reconstruction Texas, who is meeting his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger. For complicated reasons, John gets enlisted in a posse to capture Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a harrowing cannibalistic serial killer. Tonto, independent of the American authorities, is after Cavendish for his own reasons. Tonto’s and John’s aims align when Cavendish gets the drop on the posse, kills Dan (and eats his heart raw), and leaves John for dead. Tonto, who speaks in a broken, monosyllabic series of grunts, strikes an allegiance with John and convinces him to mask himself, as Cavendish and the other baddies think he’s dead, so he can avenge his brother as a ghostlike symbol and not a vulnerable man, and thus we have the Lone Ranger.
Cavendish is the enforcer for a greedy railroad magnate named Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who is engineering a war between the Texas settlers and the native Comanches to gain access to a silver mine and buy more shares in the railroad company. Tonto and John, along with a beautiful white horse named Silver, foil the plan, rescue women and children, and bring the bad guys to justice.
All of the previous sentence is true, but Verbinski and the screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio make it a little more complicated than that. What’s refreshing about The Lone Ranger is that the Ranger himself is as square and simple as he as always been; the filmmakers resisted the temptation to give us a dark Lone Ranger à la Man of Steel (2013) and its joyless and unappealing Superman, a character who is traditionally the Lone Ranger with the ability to fly. Instead, Hammer and Verbinski give us a Ranger who is to be ridiculed and mocked for his childlike guilelessness. His fealty to pursuing justice through the law and not in the uncivilized but practical way of the West is routinely chided by the other characters and by the plot, which punishes him every time for bringing Cavendish to the authorities and passing up the chance to lawlessly kill him. He’s always the last to figure out the conspiracies and the corruption around him as his Boy Scout faith in goodness is proved wrong at every turn. He’s not quite Inspector Clouseau, bumbling his way to success, but there’s no doubt in my mind if the little boy in the Lone Ranger outfit knew what his hero was really like, he wouldn’t be dressing like him.
The Lone Ranger here (we’ll get to Tonto in a moment) is hardly a hero but isn’t an anti-hero either; he’s just a simple man in a complicated world. The problem is, the Lone Ranger of yore inhabited a simple world as well and the question is, was there a point in exposing that simplicity for ridicule by superimposing him against a cynical and dishonest environment? Clearly, it was an economic mistake as the movie is taking a beating at the box office, partly because audiences don’t know what to make of the dichotomy (especially as it’s marketed to children), but that doesn’t concern me. As a piece of art, does The Lone Ranger work? The Lone Ranger legend is about good and bad, black hats versus white ones, and courage standing up for the downtrodden. John Reid in this movie lives in that world but no one else does; he’s constantly undercut as every preexisting notion he has about law, government, authority and human nature turns out to be false. Patriotism is a sham, chivalry is for fools, justice is a joke.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto stop this particular bunch of cutthroat criminals but the movie leaves no doubt that they were just entrepreneurs in a system that is ripe for such criminality. Every segment of American authority is exposed for duplicity and underhandedness, from local to national government, business and the military. The snaky Cavendish has a twin in the cavalryman Fuller (Barry Pepper), who looks and is styled similarly, two sides of the coin. There’s a lot of talk in this movie about progress and the future and the things that will get left behind. Native American culture is often the target of this talk, but it’s the Lone Ranger and what he stands for that is most under attack. The message becomes either that we (America) have lost our way and the goodie innocence of a Lone Ranger-type is the only way to get it back, or we have lost our way irrevocably and the Ranger should be mocked for his naïveté, or that we never had a way, have always been corrupt, and abnormalities like the Ranger are delusionally spitting into the wind. What’s the point of fighting for something in a world defined by nihilism?
This makes for a truly strange movie-going experience because that type of bleak outlook is in odd juxtaposition to what we accept as simple heroic imagery. I bet you never thought you’d see a Disney movie that presents the “Star Spangled Banner” like a creaky dirge for a dying civilization. However, the movie is never fully committed to that outlook and wants to be both a cynical satire and a thrilling adventure, dulling the effect of both ideas. When we’ve established that heroism is a lie and that the Lone Ranger’s efforts are useless and sad, it takes some of the rousing effect of the great theme music during a chase scene. There is some interesting action here (particularly a train chase at the end with Tonto embroiled in a Keatonesque balancing act on a ladder), but it fails to inspire because we’ve been told that inspiration is for juvenile babies.
The movie lives uneasily in two places, but perhaps the Lone Ranger has always been more complicated than we think (this is, after all, an American hero whose theme music is the overture to a French opera about a Swiss legend, written by an Italian composer). This tonal indecision leads to pacing issues that bog down the movie’s middle section, making for an ultimately unsatisfactory movie that doesn’t have the bite it pretends to, but also can’t pay off the adventurous exhilaration it’s after. I thought a lot about John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a movie that achieves that mixture of political subversion and narrative propitiation. Beyond attempting to capture that tonal balance (few movies have), the love story in The Lone Ranger, between John and Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), John’s widowed sister-in-law, seems inspired by the unexplored romance between Ethan Edwards and his sister-in-law in The Searchers. There’s even Ford’s favorite hymn, often used satirically, “Shall We Gather at the River?”
The difference is that the message of The Searchers foretold the death of the masculinity Ethan Edwards traded in, that progress meant a removal of the type of unbending might-makes-right thinking he represented. The Lone Ranger seems to think that simple goodness and heroism are the dying entities and there’s no point in resurrecting them. I’m not against bleak messages but I feel they ought to reveal something—what does The Lone Ranger reveal? Everyone whose story has ended on a down note, from Faust to Charles Foster Kane, was presented with a choice, and the value of their stories is to take those lessons with us so we make the right choice when the time comes. John Reid has no choice; he just believes in order in a world that has none, and that world, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie as well, mocks him for it.
Note: Now to Depp as Tonto, who is the real star of The Lone Ranger. As the movie has staked its claim on upturning preconceived notions, it seems natural that Tonto be the real hero between the pair. It’s suggested that the Lone Ranger is only a success because of Tonto’s guidance. Tonto is independent, subservient to no one and has one more bullet in the gun than anyone else. However, and leaving aside the debate on whether or not Depp should have even been cast in the role (for my money, he shouldn’t have), for all his smarts on the battlefield, the character speaks in broken English, has a childlike wonder about nature, speaks to animals and puts his faith in mysticism over hard science. The movie’s alibi for this behavior is that, according to a Comanche chief, speaking fluent English, Tonto’s “brain is broken,” which gives him carte blanche to act like a stereotype. Further, for as strong of a character as the movie would pretend he is, his defining characteristics come from what I’ll call his “Indianness,” mainly the way he talks and what he wears, which do not make him a complete person, simply a personality. This will always bother me on a movie-making level but not necessarily on a racial level, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a character like this who simply happens to be Native American but the production has gone to great lengths to court the approval of the American Indian community (many of their efforts should be applauded) and I’m not sure you’d do that unless the character was to at least in part represent the Native American experience.
Furhtermore, it’s the Lone Ranger who grabs the credit in the end (to say nothing of the title of the movie), which is fine in anti-Westerns (when the legend becomes fact, print the legend), but when the chips are really down, it’s the Lone Ranger who comes through, Tonto, a sidekick once more. Despite the heavy publicity and marketing, sadly, the simple truth is that John Reid is the most interesting character in the movie because the movie is about how the world reacts to him. Tonto is only cosmetically different from his former, submissive editions, and I kept thinking that he’s still that Noble Savage, stuck in a house of curiosity. The estimable Laura Mulvey, writing about 48 Hours (1982), hits on something applicable:
“…the black character is only good at subverting order, while the white character restores narrative order…this racial tension and balance pre-empts any sense of direct ‘identification’ with [Eddie] Murphy’s character because ultimately his ‘transgressions’ are subject to the same process of discipline and punishment – he is not the hero of the story, although he may be the star of the show.”