This column contains spoilers for The Lone Ranger.
I’m not saying The Lone Ranger is a great movie. But it’s one that is very provocative and still works as entertainment. The action sequences are clean and well-shot, the performances are energetic and the photography is often beautiful. It’s unfashionable to release a straightforward Western these days, so The Lone Ranger is a sort of Western-Pirates of the Caribbean hybrid. The two work together better than expected.
I may be wrong, but I think this is all Johnny Depp’s doing. Only a star with his clout at Disney (thanks to Pirates and Alice in Wonderland) could have gotten away with this. I think he cashed in a favor. In an interview which you can find on IMDB, Depp is asked what attracted him to the role of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. He answers that selfishly he saw it as an opportunity to pay respects to Native Americans and their culture. He goes on (a bit clumsily) to say he hopes the movie inspires a ‘warrior spirit’ and pride in young people. Depp’s heritage is something he’s talked about before and actually has been a cause of controversy for him. He’s said that he believed he was a descendant of Cherokee or Creek Indians. Some have questioned why he never confirmed his ancestry and he was quoted as saying "You have to think, somewhere along the line, I’m the product of some horrific rape," which was (rightly) seen by many Native Americans to be ignorant and insensitive. However, that informs his intentions with Tonto and The Lone Ranger. Rape is an act of violence, and the consequences of violence is a major theme in The Lone Ranger.
Many people die in The Lone Ranger, but unlike other summer blockbusters there are scenes where one character grieves or buries the deceased. They consider the death. Tellingly, these deaths are all of white characters. The Native Americans that are killed (a Cherokee tribe is plowed down by military machines guns) are glossed over to catch up with our heroes John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger) and Tonto. It is this sequence (about ¾ into the movie) where I got queasy. Was this Man of Steel all over again, where hundreds die only to be ignored by the protagonists? I thought so for a minute, but then I remembered the conceit The Lone Ranger had already set up. The white-washing of the Cherokee tribe’s death was done on purpose.
The conceit I mention is a framing device the movie uses of old-age Tonto (Johnny Depp in some great make-up) now being an attraction in a carnival sideshow about the Old West. Billed as "The Noble Savage," Tonto is telling the story of the Lone Ranger legend to a young white boy who is dressed in a Lone Ranger costume. Through the course of the movie, we learn that Tonto is an unreliable narrator. The scene where Tonto’s tribe is murdered by the military machines guns is very matter-of-fact, and then moves on quickly to Tonto and the Lone Ranger making a getaway. No dialogue is spoken about what happened to Tonto’s remaining tribe.
Other peculiar events happen as well, such as the spirit horse Silver standing on a tree branch that would never be able to hold a horse. Moments like this call into question how much the events of The Lone Ranger can be taken at face value. It seems that Tonto is creating a grand adventure where he and The Lone Ranger can save the day as a way of willfully blocking out the unfathomable tragedies he and his people have endured.
Here’s my opinion: everything leading up to attorney John Reid being killed actually happened. Some early scenes show Tonto admires John’s brother, U.S. Marshal Dan Reid, for being a great warrior. Dan is killed by villain Butch Cavendish shortly before Butch also shoots John. It’s established earlier in the movie that John is unbendingly moral and concerned with justice over revenge. He is also an ineffective man of action and shown to be a fool. Only through the course of the movie is John Reid able to “become” The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger is a hero’s journey for sure, but not the kind we are used to seeing. The hero, The Lone Ranger, is created solely in Tonto’s image. He is looking for the one white man who is moral and a brave man of action. He wants a combination of the two Reid brothers -- someone who can walk the walk and talk the talk. Is John Reid the true Lone Ranger? Sadly, the answer is no.
Is the young boy the real Lone Ranger? Tonto hopes so, but it may be a fool’s hope. The role of The Lone Ranger is too serious to Tonto to be taken lightly. Until the right time, “Hi ho, Silver, away!” will have to wait.
Good write-up Adam.ReplyDelete
The idea that the film plays with the perception of reality, ie as the exaggerated or incomplete recollections of Tonto is pretty interesting. I am reminded of other films that do that like Big Fish or The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. I have not seen the film yet and really had no intention too, but now I may have to give it a viewing at some point.
Just a friendly FYI: It's "Hi-yo Silver away!" not "Hi-ho".ReplyDelete
I double checked a few sites and it is 'Hi ho.' Thanks for reading and the FYI though. We all make mistakes sometimes :-)Delete
Great column, Adam. I didn't see the movie as the 'perceived reality' allegory you write about, I took it at face value I was watching Tonto's recollection of the adventures he and 'Kimosabi' had in their youth. Guess this means the movie can work both ways, as a subversive blockbuster or as a hero's journey adventure, depending on the eye of the beholder. I saw it as the latter, but when I watch it again (either in theater or when the Blu-ray comes out) I can see it again with the former's POV. Win-win.ReplyDelete
I saw "Lone Ranger" on the 4th of July and was shocked that the film I was watching was not anywhere near the disaster the reviews and press were making it out to be. It is this year's "John Carter" (Disney sure knows how to pick 'em): an expensive and somewhat flawed movie that is nevertheless fun and makes you think afterwards. The main action piece toward the end, when The William Tell overture kicks in, is the most fun I've had in the movies this year. I was literally covering my jaw hiding the biggest mouth-wide-open grin I couldn't contain at what I was watching and feeling, that 'I'm a 10 year-old!' feeling you get when you watch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for the first time. It's a sharp contrast with "Man of Steel," which was the least fun time I've had in a movie theater this year.
Since I recently saw Verbinski's "Pirates" trilogy for the first time this feels like a continuation/expansion of that series, with all the good (intelligent and smart writing with a ton of little callbacks that are scattered and come back later to pay off big time) and bad (seriously, who didn't see the twist about who the bad guy is coming from the first reel?) such legacy entails. If "The Lone Ranger" is guilty of anything it might be hubris by Depp, Bruckheimer, Verbinski, Rossio, Elliott & Co. of assuming they could manufacture "Pirates" magic at will. They work really hard at it and the end result is a fun movie, but one that feels like a rerun of better movies ("Curse of the Black Pearl") weighed down by the shortcuts and bloat of others ("At World's End").
Oh well, in a summer in which every other movie seems hell-bent on killing and slaughtering people by the thousands (including this one), I'll take the Disney movie that at least is bending over backwards to try to entertain me over the one's passing bloodless massacres as entertainment. "The Lone Ranger" rulz! :-)
Thanks J.M. I agree with you that The Lone Ranger is more fun than most of the other summer blockbusters thus far (I think Fast and Furious 6 still holds this crown). The ending with the William Tell Overture is a great sequence.Delete
I'm so tired of being the guy who sticks up for the shat-on movie this year. I find it depressing that critics and the media are so prone to hyperbole nowadays. It's either the best or the worst with no in between.
I just got back from seeing this and it is probably the most fun I've had in a movie this year. The train/chase sequence was so ridiculously wonderful. I kept smiling the whole time.ReplyDelete
Originally this was a week off for me but per Adam's review I am gonna give the Ranger a shot, now that I think of it the last Western I saw in a theatre was Shanghai Noon, man it's been a while.ReplyDelete
I'm just getting back from watching this - it was a lot of fun, not great but miles away from bad - I liked it and so did the rest of the audience it seemed. I also like your interpretation - I didn't quite go there when I was watching it but I get it, and given Depp's history you could very well be right.ReplyDelete
And yeah, some of the photography really was gorgeous - Monument Valley is one of cinema's most ubiquitous locations and I felt like I was seeing it again for the first time - they did some shots of it I hadn't seen quite like that before.
What the hell is going on with the film critic community? I don't think we should be forced to settle for sub-par movies and "not bad" shouldn't be considered the new "good", but it seems like everything that isn't GREAT gets labelled as "bad", when some really still have a lot to offer. I can't for the life of me figure out why The Lone Ranger is getting shit on so badly - it's maybe a little long and not every joke lands but there was very little that was BAD about it and a whole shitload of stuff that was pretty good.
I thought the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes were pretty good, but didn't care for those middle TWO HOURS. So I'm one of the people who found it to be pretty bad, even though I hoped to like it. I don't think the movie knows whose story it wants to tell, what story it wants to tell, how it wants to tell it or what it wants to say.Delete
But I'm glad that a lot of people are liking it, because it's more fun to like movies. Unless it's Grown Ups 2, and then I just can't look you in the eye.
Don't worry buddy, that last part we agree on.Delete
But that leads me to another question specifically to you, one of my favourite film crickets, how do you differentiate between movies like The Lone Ranger and Grown Ups 2 because surely you must at least think that the former deserves to be seen more than the latter.
I guess the real villain here is Rotten Tomatoes which strips reviews of all subtlety, makes them strictly pass/fail and gives them that aggregate score which I also think a lot of people don't understand isn't actually a measurement of the movie's quality (sometimes maybe).
An interesting thing that site does highlight though is that almost all of these recently panned blockbusters have this huge difference between the Critics "score" and the audience score. In the case of The Lone Ranger only 25% of critics liked it, while 68% of the audience did. Are you guys expecting too much or are we expecting too little?
Well, if I'm being totally fair, I should wait until Grown Ups 2 comes out and I see it. If it's the best possible version of that movie, I would suggest people see that instead of Lone Ranger. If it's EXACTLY the movie I suspect it will be, then of COURSE people should see Lone Ranger. It has things to like in it and flashes of ambition.Delete
I'm not a fan of Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, because they reduce movies to a number without really considering any of the shading that informs opinions. What is that 68% of the audience? Is it the people on our site who like the movie? Because I can get behind that. Or is it people who don't like to think about what they're seeing and are just happy to have 2.5 hours of business on screen that looks and feels expensive? That's not to diminish those opinions -- if people like it, they like it -- but it may explain the divide between audiences and critics. And there are no doubt critics who had some bias going into the movie because they wanted it to fail for some reason. Again, that's not to suggest that they didn't like it only because they didn't like it. I only bring all this up because the "divide" between audiences and critics that you bring up is often pointed to as evidence that critics are out of touch. That may be the case, but there's much more to it than that.
Yeah, I don't know, I might be a smart guy (if I do say so myself and I do) who's a bit of a movie dummy. Or at least an in-the-theatre-at-the-moment movie dummy because I have lately found myself more or less enjoying everything I've watched on a big screen whilst stuffing my face with popcorn, including such gems as After Earth and Man of Steel. Things start to fall apart the more I think about them afterwards, but that mindless gut impression is what tends to stick with me and I don't tend to ret-con my initial enjoyment. Where you and other film critics, I'm guessing, have a more analytical approach in the moment that colours your entire experience from the get-go. It's hard to say which approach is "better" - yours is definitely smarter, but Christ, I have to be smart about the real world for most of my day, can't I take a break? (Also, speaking of Christ, an ATHEIST hero in a Disney movie - Hallelujah!)Delete
I am remembering more things I didn't like about it - some of the humour fell flat (esp stupid poop jokes) and the dead bird thing got tired. And a huge problem that just occurred to me was that you have the "hero" of the movie very much abhor guns/violence and preach justice over vengeance, but then violence and splosions eventually solve EVERYTHING. That's pretty shitty.
I can't speak for how other critics watch movies, but I definitely don't sit there analyzing each beat as it happens. I try to just watch a movie and enjoy it as much as I can. It's just a gut feeling whether or not something is 'working' for me. Only afterwards do I try to figure out why something did or did not work for me -- that's when I start to analyze.Delete
I shouldn't've assumed! But, and again just guessing here, perhaps your (and other critics') SUBconscious is more analytical than mine (or the average movie-goer's), hence your gut feeling is smarter and more critical than you even realize.Delete
Let's smoke some pot and discuss this further.
@Sol and Patrick - I've noticed I'm more analytical as I watch a movie than I was say a year ago but two things always hold true for me. A movie is not working (for me) if I'm: a) directing it in my head as it plays or b) I'm fidgeting in my seat.ReplyDelete
Same for me, though for (a) I'm not so much directing the movie in my head as I am thinking about boobs.Delete
I finally saw Lone Ranger last night and I am with Adam on this one. I thought it was a good time at the movies with some notable flaws (why does Helena Bonham Carter have to be in EVERY Depp movie, also the horse on the tree was a bit much) it was nice to see that the Lone Ranger while definitely troubled from the death of his brother never started punching the bad guy Batman style screaming "WHERE IS THE SILVER, TELL ME!" I had a few issues with the middle of the film but nowhere near the level that Patrick did. Also damn William Fichtner is great as Butch Cavendish, the evil outlaw.ReplyDelete
Adam as to your analytical point I definitely go into that sometimes, even when it's a good movie sometimes. I feel like I go into "Sportscenter Vision" - "Well that was a nice piece of character development they threw out there will definitely lead well into the 2nd act, oh no they brought out an unneeded Will Ferrell cameo onto the field that's just gonna stop this thing dead in it's tracks. That's what happens when you bring directors like Brett Ratner from the farm leagues up to the big show, sure he keeps things under budget but you'd think this Universal team might want to bring home a few trophies sometime this century."
The Lone Ranger, being an Americanized knockoff of another certain masked Old West crusader, originated on the radio. This was appropriate, because, when one can only hear the story and action, one doesn't feel cheated to be missing the visual thrills of Zorro's amazing swordplay. Of course, as an American hero, The Lone Ranger eventually eclipsed Zorro's popularity with American kids before both were more or less forgotten.ReplyDelete
Given a relatively blank cultural slate, then, which would you revive for the screen, Zorro or The Lone Ranger? If you said "Zorro", two-thirds of TLR's writers seem to agree, as Ted Elliott and Terry Rossioco co-wrote The Mask of Zorro (an excellent, podcast-worthy film) some 15 years before the Depp movie. (Of course, they and Orci-Kurtzman then wrecked that incarnation of Zorro with their too-delayed sequel, from which TLR borrows several gags.)
The moral of the story? TLR may provide more grist for post-viewing analysis, and it may also be underrated, but The Mask of Zorro will be justly remembered far longer and much more warmly. The Fox remains supreme, muah ha ha ha! *carves a "Z" on the page, rides off into the moonlight* :P