The Lone Ranger was the one certified flop of the summer. Pre-release buzz was overwhelmingly negative, and when reviews starting pouring in, they were brutal. 27% positive on Rotten Tomatoes (though audiences have been more positive). Critics hated the film’s shifts in tone, hated its juxtaposition of serious and comedic moments, hated the complexity of the plot, hated the length, and hated, really really hated Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto. Mostly that.
Well, pffftttbbb to all the critics. I liked the movie, liked it a lot. I thought it was a terrific, funny and fun, but also morally serious summer movie.
Johnny Depp may be in something of a rut, creatively. Yes, he likes to work with Tim Burton and he likes to work with Gore Verbinski. And he’s acted alongside Helena Bonham Carter many many times. And yes, he likes to play oddball characters, likes to bring his own strange brand of comedy to marginalized, damaged, often masked characters. All true, and I don’t doubt that for many critics, Depp-fatigue is setting in.
But set all that aside, set aside the fact that Tonto is the kind of character Depp has taken to playing a lot over the last ten years, and just look at the characterization. Tonto, as Depp plays him is:
An outcast, a man without a tribe or a people, a man in exile, shamed, lonely and alone. A man who, as a child, made a single, foolish, tragic mistake with terrible consequences. And a man who almost certainly suffers from untreated PTSD
A man desperate for revenge. A Comanche, trying to solve a crime committed by white Americans. A man, therefore, who learns to embody white men’s stereotypes for his people, because that’s the only way he can infiltrate a foreign people, and root out the greatest enemy of his own people. So he speaks in pidgin as part of his disguise, (though he’s more fluent in English than he lets on). He wears a dead bird on his head, and wears face paint. Essential to his disguise? Possibly also a bit of shell shock?
A man who clings to half-remembered vestiges of his own culture’s spirituality, a man who desperately seeks spiritual comfort, but only occasionally can connect himself to it.
A man who nonetheless, notwithstanding all the above, retains a sense of comedy and the ridiculous, a warrior aware of the essential absurdity of war, a man barely capable of restraining his inner jokester.
That’s the characterization I saw in the theater. I saw him nail all of it, all the contradictions, weaving it into a whole. I saw the most inventive, interesting, quirky, brilliant actor of his generation give a performance for the ages. And the movie reflected that performance.
It’s certainly true that Johnny Depp is not Native American, and that he played one of the few genuinely iconic Native American roles. And his characterization included Indian stereotypes–the pidgin, the vision quests. But I thought his multi-faceted, rich performance honored Native American culture, as did the movie. I do understand that Depp took a job a Native American actor could have played. Lou Diamond Phillips is a fine actor, and is one eighth Cherokee (also one eighth Hispanic, one eighth Chinese, one eighth Phillipino. . .). But Disney wasn’t about to invest a quarter of a billion dollars to fund a Lone Ranger movie starring Armie Hammer and Lou Diamond Phillips. The movie got made because Depp agreed to play the role. As a result, twenty Native American actors got work in smaller roles, (including the tremendous Saginaw Grant, giving a Comanche chief stature and dignity and presence).
And the movie also honored the Comanche narratively. The basic plot involves evil railway magnate Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who starts a border war with the Comanche because he knows there’s silver on Comanche land. That echoes our sad history twenty times over–quite specifically, it echoes 1874-76, when the US Cavalry precipitated a war over the Black Hills, sacred to the Cheyenne and Lakota, and given to them via treaty–until gold was found there. And so, in The Lone Ranger, the Cavalry provoke a Comanche attack, and then mow down the Comanche warriors with repeating rifles and Gatling guns. It was a powerful bit of filmmaking, given full value by the director, given enough time and space to really resonate. And, then, cut to The Lone Ranger and Tonto barely escaping with their lives, and their escape is treated a little comically. Inappropriate? Human comedy, human foolishness and greed and weakness juxtaposed against tragedy? Is there a more profound human tragedy than the Civil War? Has it ever been treated more beautifully, majestically, than in . . . The General? A Buster Keaton farce? Or how about Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful? A comedy, set in the Holocaust?
And yes, those are two tremendous films, wonderfully transgressive and inventive and daring. Sacrilege, perhaps, to compare them to The Lone Ranger. This is a Disney movie, after all, a Gore Verbinski mainstream action adventure buddy comedy, a summer popcorn movie. An attempt by a purely commercially oriented director to do for oat operas what he had previously done for pirates. I just say that it’s an ambitious undertaking, and that its moments of seriousness ground it, and give it some real resonance and power. I think Verbinski takes some risks here, and for me, they panned out. I think of most recent Westerns–Appaloosa, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, True Grit–and it seems to me that most of them sort of duck the issue of Native Americans. But you can’t make a Lone Ranger movie and duck Tonto.
Depp’s performance is so memorable that it’s easy to forget Armie Hammer as TLR himself, but he’s great too. Hammer’s sort of absurdly good looking and physically imposing, but he’s also a real actor–he creates an equally multifaceted character, and his growth is interesting. He’s John Reid, a former Westerner sent East to study law, now returned to serve as district attorney. He goes around citing John Locke at people and babbling on about ‘rule of law’, and even his brother, Dan, an actual Texas Ranger thinks he’s ridiculous, seeing as how the actual West is populated with psychopaths and murderers and cannibals and Tom Wilkinson. To toughen him up, Dan takes him on a posse, which is then wiped out by the evil gang of outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, fabulous in the part). And Tonto comes by and saved John Reid (or does he? could he be immortal?) and gives him the mask and the hat. And Hammer grows in the part, the Masked Man role. So it’s a buddy movie, and Hammer and Depp crack wise back and forth, and of course save the day. The actors have a nice rhythm together, and the comedy leavens the action nicely.
And there’s a girl (obviously, there’s always a girl), Ruth Wilson, (from Anna Karenina) as Dan’s widow, who John (TLR) has always kinda had a crush on. But then so does Tom Wilkinson, of course–all melodramatic villains have evil designs on the lovely heroine’s person. That particular subplot feels de rigueur, no fault of Wilson’s, who clambers agilely around various trains. And of course Helena Bonham Carter’s also in it, as a madame with an ivory leg gun thing. Her part feels perfunctory–felt like they just put her in because it’s a Johnny Depp movie and could anyway use another female character, plus, hey, leg gun! But it’s still HBC–they don’t give her a lot to do, but you don’t forget her either.
What I’m saying is that this is a movie with serious bits and comic bits and the serious bits worked on their terms and the comic bits worked on their terms, and these amazing action sequences tie them all together.
And that’s something else that needs to be said about Gore Verbinski. Okay, maybe he’s not a director whose movies make profound comments about the human condition. But check out his IMDB page. One of the scariest films I know (The Ring). One of the best animated films of the recent past (Rango). Big budget Pirates of the Caribbean movies (and remember how shockingly good the first one of those was, how amazed we all were with this movie based on a theme park ride?). The guy knows what he’s doing.
And the final action sequence in The Lone Ranger is just astounding. Endlessly inventive, incredibly exciting, funny and dangerous and smart and exceptionally well filmed. And the music for it is the William Tell Overture. Am I overstating? Consider this: throughout the entire twenty minute sequence, we always are oriented in time and space. We cut between three separate story situations, and always know where we are in each of them. The camera pulls back, and he lets it roll (no Michael Bay-ish manufacturing of artificial excitement through tiresome rapid editing–instead he pulls back the camera and lets the stunt guys do their thing). The CGI: seamlessly integrated. It’s just a beautifully conceived, filmed and edited action sequence. And the music adds a boldly ironic meta-cinematic commentary.
Look, we can quibble about details of the film. For one thing, the Western geography is so preposterous that it has to be intentional–like the scenery is providing its own meta-commentary. Apparently, the producers seem to think that Promontory Point is just outside Albuquerque, and that the route of the Union Pacific railroad passed through the Four Corners region. (Also that buffalo proliferated in the New Mexico desert!). The film is ostensibly about the building of the railroad, but it wants to be a Western, and Westerns are shot in red rock country. Ah, what’s a few hundred miles among friends?
And yes, I’ll grant you that it’s basically just a summer popcorn movie. But I’ve seen all the big budget summer popcorn movies out so far, and I thought The Lone Ranger was the most exciting, most entertaining and best filmed. Set aside critical cavilling about how many parts like this Johnny Depp has played in his career. It’s a good movie. My wife and I had a great time, and honestly, I think you will too if you give it a chance.