The Lone Ranger

This film has been razed in reviews for being the immature fantasy of twelve-year-old boys come to life and I’m going to praise it for the same reason. In an age where anything, no matter how grand, is turned into a self-referential festival of quips and corny winks aimed at seven-year-olds, twelve-year-olds feel pretty mature to me. Gore Verbinski wads up a century of heroism and launches it at the screen; he feels like the directing equivalent of a t-shirt canon. He’s bold enough to throw his ideas into the air and too self-assured to care where they land. You’ll remember this working for his Pirates of the Caribbean and it works about as well in The Lone Ranger, even though this time, no one noticed.

The question of why everyone dismissed this one is about as important as the question of how good it is. I feel like this is something I have to get into. There was some talk about Johnny Depp’s barely lucid portrayal of the classic Native American sidekick character, Tonto, as being offensive. I think this is a smokescreen some people put up; it’s an easy criticism because no one’s going to think about it too hard. But think about this for a second: casting a legitimate Native American in that role (there are some in the movie and all are portrayed with quiet reverence, such as Gil Birmingham, who is of Comanche descent) would also have garnered ridicule of another kind. Tonto isn’t that flattering of a character, flirting somewhere between the Ranger’s pack mule, tour guide, and bodyguard. And in this script, he'a a silly character. If he appeared and acted culturally accurate in the guise of still being silly, it would be offensive in a different way, a kind of reduction to senselessness of an entire culture, which is portrayed in the film with sensibility and even empathy; Tonto is portrayed as being apart from it completely (a Native chief, remarks, "His mind is broken. He is a band apart."). Depp’s lunacy isn’t insensitive because it’s not trying to be accurate. Depp's been a band apart for years, and he, not Native American culture, is the butt of the joke of his performance. I won't deny that the performance is an acquired taste. But in the realm of arguing about cultural representation in a reboot of a kids' adventure serial franchise from a century ago, this is the best possible option.

More importantly, accurate portrayals sometimes lose their sense of childhood, and in the context of of this material, they still may not be all that flattering. Sanitation isn't always wrong, but it always involves a little growing up. Remember how Spielberg’s Hook played it safe and got rid of the Indians, and Tiger Lily, and hoped that this would sanitize and thereby justify the animated film, and its entire generation of innocently offensive play-pretend? In the process, something went out of its whole universe: by not being portrayed at all, for fear of offense, the playfulness seemed bled out of it. Sensitive portrayals are always appreciated but when we’re so concerned with correctness that we’d rather opt for no portrayal at all to be on the safe side, something has gone out of us that I think Verbinski would call “a good time.” He knew enough about fun and is willing to ignore enough about us to put it back into our adventures in The Lone Ranger.

He knows that in order to do so, even the silliest things have to be played completely straight. The sight of Tonto posing in a museum exhibit and relating the origin story of the Ranger to a young cowpoke at a fair is amusing; where that image ends up all the way to the end credits, had me in stitches (it has more than a little Buster Keaton in it: that stony defiance of all the elements, that still camera, that walk that gets funnier the more it gets sad). It’s the straightness of it, the bold-faced contempt for the movies today that smirk to themselves as a form of being unconfident in us, that gives The Lone Ranger its freshness in an age of tryhards. Maybe you’re tired of origin stories, but Verbinski treats it so reverently that I couldn’t help but get excited.

Armie Hammer is perfect as the Ranger because he’s a statue, the kind of man you believe would not be a hero if it didn’t seem convenient for him; his whole arc could be described as learning to endure inconvenience for the sake of his values. His transformation into a man who would wear a mask is shockingly coherent in this movie: you can see how over-powerful moguls with a leash on the law could force lawmen into hiding, and how having values is hard enough to turn you into a vigilante to uphold them. By the time The Lone Ranger is in its third act, and the classic theme starts playing, and all the pieces are in place, and he’s on the horse and in his hat and he has a train to save, it really does reproduce those old feelings of heroism in you, the kind that Superman hasn’t given us since 1980. I really, really wanted him to save that train. We don’t have to knock down even one building to do it.

That doesn’t mean Verbinski is immune to his usual excesses: there are explosions in The Lone Ranger, about thirty minutes too much movie in the middle, and a lot of jokes that don’t land (they don’t even try to land: they seem like Depp’s coke dreams that just got left in the final print). Helena Bonham Carter waltzes into the movie with a towering gown and a porcelain leg with a pistol in it; she plays someone named Red Harrington, but is a red herring for nothing but class. The Ranger and Tonto are captured, beaten, buried, and by all accounts one of the most amazing things about it is that you understand why they’re friends.

This brings me to an interesting revelation. Solo: A Star Wars Story is similar to this version of The Lone Ranger, almost like the former was a do-over: most of its major beats carry over (the placement of the train sequence, the origin story trinkets, and the relationship between the two main mates is kind of absurdly similar). Maybe we’re just dealing with the film industry running on empty: of course there will be scripts that sleepwalk through familiar motions (adventure, escape, betrayal, success). But particularly in that main relationship, the Solo script never once makes you feel any bond between those two; after they meet, it treats it as bygone, as though Chewbacca not being able to speak stops them from giving him anything to say. The Ranger/Tonto relationship is actually an arc, with a low point and a conclusion, and one that I found myself feeling retroactively nostalgic for after the film was over. It shines through a trash pile of extra stuff.

For some reason, people treat this movie as though it’s on the level of The Ridiculous Six or some other cynical studio comedy. But it’s affectionately shot, the action is rip-roaring (Tarantino famously listed it in his ten best movies of 2013 for that reason), and most importantly, you can see the good nature that threads it together. No, I’m not a “Lone Ranger fan.” I’m not even a Verbinski fan. I just appreciate that he’s willing to bare it all: he knows that the funniest things are very serious and that sometimes a hero story is so unlikely and so cliché that the only way to do it is to tighten your belt and play it straight (Buster Keaton not only filmed this truth: he lived it every day). People today apparently prefer when a movie points at them and laughs, and tells them when they’re supposed to laugh, and makes corny references to things they know, and winks at them for getting it like good little boys and girls always do. But I laughed ten times more in The Lone Ranger than in Deadpool, which is a well-meaning romp, but one that tries so desperately hard to be liked by people who want to be cool that it becomes insufferable. Well, Verbinski made a movie no one liked because it didn’t try that hard to be liked. It’s sad that this makes you a failure these days. Sometimes, good director must wear mask.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Walt Disney Pictures

Cast & Crew

Gore Verbinski

Justin Haythe

Ted Elliott

Terry Rossio

Fran Striker and George W. Trendle (based on characters by)

John Reid/Lone Ranger Armie Hammer
Tonto Johnny Depp
Butch Cavendish William Fichtner
Latham Cole Tom Wilkinson
Rebecca Reid Ruth Wilson
Red Harrington Helena Bonham Carter

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