When I was growing up, my mother held the position of chief librarian of Native American Educational Services’ Chicago branch. During summer days off when I couldn’t get away with staying home and watching re-runs of I Love Lucy and The Beverly Hillbillies, I’d get dragged along to spend my time perusing shelves full of Native American mythology and history.
I learned what Animism was at an early age. I had as much exposure to Native American religion as I did to Christianity. I knew more about early American history from the Native American viewpoint, one of betrayal and massacre at the hands of the same people I was told were heroes and founders during the school year.
Which brings me to the new film adaptation of The Lone Ranger. Half an hour in, I was all set to write clever quips about its use of cowboy-on-cowboy cannibalism in a rote tale of heroism and vengeance in the Old West. But Gore Verbinski, the man who directed Rango and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, has been building up to this movie for a very long time. Truth be told, The Lone Ranger is a pretty solid action movie. It’s a better comedy. And it’s an absolutely brilliant criticism of American expansionism, corporate capitalism, and military industrial politics. In fact, it does a better job of illustrating the link between these three components of our culture than certain lauded documentaries I’ve seen.
This is a film wherein hero John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a milquetoast, privileged, bookish white lawyer possessed with the notion that the American way of justice-for-all will fix all the iniquities of society at the end of the day. Lo and behold, after a few of these iniquities occur to him and his loved ones, including the aforementioned bit of cannibalism performed by Butch Cavendish (played with snide relish by William Fichtner), Reid starts to change his tune.
Enter Comanche sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp), who convinces Reid to don a mask and become the eponymous Lone Ranger. The two bicker in the style required by buddy comedies, but their quibbles stem from Reid’s refusal to recognize or react to the obvious abuses of power taking place right under his nose. He stubbornly remains a black-and-white era hero amid a more modern, nuanced set of villains. Without giving much away, the Comanche are in danger and the transcontinental railroad stands to profit from their genocide. The Lone Ranger represents a conservative, 1950s mentality in the face of technologically–driven, modern atrocities, hopelessly faithful in the righteousness of capitalism and American law. At one point, the Ranger even remains needlessly but rather pointedly blindfolded as he’s guided by Tonto through the massacre taking place around them. This is a movie with an incredible grudge.
It’s these sorts of ridiculous sequences, juxtaposing comedy and tragedy to create a meta commentary, that have lately become Verbinski’s calling card. If Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was stridently anti-corporate, its plot was so complex it required multiple viewings and a homemade flow chart to really start plumbing out the depths of its message. Things are pared down here, but in both films, Depp acts as the oil that keeps the engine going. Few actors would be willing, let alone able, to balance a slapstick moment against a genocidal atrocity. That moment with the blindfold is awkward, it’s deeply uncomfortable, and dammit, it works unbelievably well.
I’ll admit, I was ready to dislike Depp in this movie. I feared a Native American version of Stepin Fetchit, but The Lone Ranger is whole-heartedly on the Native American side of the argument. For the most part, Depp takes a back seat, subduing what could easily have been an over-the-top, mugging role while allowing Hammer the larger-than-life character. To Hammer’s credit, he’s willing and able to push the camp aspects of his character with a steady charm.
The core narrative is told in flashback form, as a story an elderly Tonto recounts to a little boy while residing in a circus sideshow’s “Noble Savage” display…as the display item. This allows Tonto to interject and jump around the story’s timeline, but it’s not an overused gimmick. In fact, stick around for the stinger as the credits roll for one of the most poignant and bittersweet moments in recent movie memory. Depp ought to get Oscar consideration once more, although he unfortunately won’t for this.
If I was the star-giving sort, and judging this just as an action movie, I’d give this two out of four stars. Verbinski’s action scenes are of the build-a-better mousetrap variety, and rarely involve just two sides, ratcheting up the number of moving pieces and motivations in play. They should baffle a viewer, yet the mayhem comes off with the same curious elegance of a Rube Goldberg machine that takes fifteen minutes and uses eighty different parts to eventually butter a piece of toast. For me, they work, but I wouldn’t insist someone who gets impatient with them is wrong.
The comedy is more spot-on. There are moments when a breather could be used between the monumental shifts in tone, and non sequiturs – even delivered by Depp – shouldn’t be used this often as segues. Again, it’s Depp who allows Verbinski to get away with playing so fast and loose with these shifts, but I’m not sure if I should laud the two as a burgeoning cinematic team-up for the ages or if Verbinski will have to re-learn how to convey his messages the next time Depp isn’t on board one of his films. Perhaps both.
I won’t pretend The Lone Ranger is perfect. It’s often messy because it’s attempting so much. It wears its heart on its sleeve, which doesn’t make it worse but makes it easier to criticize. It tries to balance horrible tragedy and political commentary with the action of a Saturday morning cartoon, meta comedy from an actor who may as well be leaning over from the seat next to you and stealing your popcorn, and the visual grandeur of a sumptuously shot Western.
This is an easy movie not to like because it’s an easy movie not to understand. You have to look for what Verbinski’s saying as a filmmaker to accept some of what’s happening on-screen. It can be viewed as popcorn entertainment, but I’d recommend against. It’d be like watching only half the screen. Even understanding much of the comedy requires a hefty knowledge of cinema, compounding one-liners and visual gags referring to dozens of other movies, from The Birth of a Nation and For a Few Dollars More to Curse of the Golden Flower and The Fifth Element. I’m sure I missed a dozen jokes for which I don’t have the reference points.
I expected The Lone Ranger to have solid comedy and enjoyably convoluted set pieces. I expected it to hit a certain action-adventure note. It did, but that note soured, because the film became something I didn’t expect. It became important. Verbinski candy-coated a massive guilt trip for what we as a nation did and points out as well as anybody that we haven’t changed a bit. He shows us what’s in our blood. Go swallow your hipster pride, stop pretending Johnny Depp isn’t still a vital, risk-taking actor, and marvel at a film that bites off as much raw, heady subject matter as I’ve seen any film attempt and, for the most part, get away with it.