Spoiler alert: plot details of the movie follow
Flawed films are often the most interesting, even—or especially—when they bomb at the box office or drive critics to distraction. Blade Runner, which neither the masses nor the pundits initially took to, has attained cult and classic film status since its release. Citizen Kane, which lost money in its original run, and the critical and financial flop Vertigo have long since entered the cinematic pantheon, with Vertigo last year knocking Kane off its perennial “greatest film” pedestal in British journal Sight & Sound’s decennial survey. This is not to suggest that Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger will be making anyone’s all-time top 10, or even top 100, list anytime soon. It is to suggest that the film deserves more credit—and more thoughtful analysis—than it generally has received.
The second major motion picture based on the 1950s television series targeting young and perpetually adolescent males (two 1950s B-movies were made with the TV cast), the latest Lone Ranger both acknowledges and attempts to transcend its boyish roots, with mixed but ultimately rewarding results.
Acknowledgment comes in the opening flashback framing scene. Set in a carnival tent in 1932, a young boy wearing a black mask and white Stetson witnesses (or wishfully imagines) the reanimation of a dioramic Tonto mannequin, which proceeds to relate The Lone Ranger’s 19th-century tale. Transcendence comes partly from the fact that the tale, despite its conceivably being told both to and by the young boy, is intended (as the film’s PG-13 rating affirms) mainly for adults, and partly from the actual American history inscribed in the fictionalized carnival scene and the Lone Ranger saga.
The Western movie genre, which began in the early 1900s when the West was still Wild, had by the 1930s become the stuff of American creationist myth—as the boy’s outfit and the “noble savage” description on Tonto’s diorama sign remind us. 1932, specifically, is just a year ahead of the debut of the Lone Ranger radio show, to whose ratings and merchandizing bonanza the boy’s attire also attests—and (falsely) prophesies for the film itself.
That the latest Lone Ranger only fitfully succeeds in balancing its adolescent and adult iterations is one of its major flaws—but only to the extent that the illumination of postmodern consumerism and arrested development in the Comic-Con age is only partially realized.
Similarly, with the film’s New Wave-style juggling of tone and narrative structure, the problem lies not in the attempt at mixing broad farce and searing tragedy, gruesome horror and social commentary, or in jumping inexplicably backward and forward in time, but in not quite pulling off these tectonic shifts with Tarantino-like aplomb. The temporal tricks are the more successful, as when one of the incidents Tonto relates to the boy at the beginning actually took place much later in the chain of events, or a bomb he infers had misfired ends up going off.
Where the film most fully achieves its goals, and may even supersede Tarantino, is in a rejiggering of history along the lines of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Though admittedly not as all-encompassing as Nazism is in Basterds or slavery in Django, Native American genocide and uber-capitalist greed are more than cursorily confronted in The Lone Ranger.
Rather than granting Indians the revenge fantasy Tarantino likely would have bequeathed them, Verbinski mines instead the Tragedy of Truth by having the audience root for the Indians in their climactic cavalry battle, and then having them mercilessly cut down not by greater numbers or superior soldiering but by a single Gatling gun.
The technologically-driven Almighty Dollar receives the harshest indictment; indeed, the cavalry come off as “merely” banally evil for doing the corporate marauders’ bidding. The arch-villains among the money grubbers are two brothers—one monstrously ugly, the other Janus-faced—who, while standing in for the mining and railroad robber barons of yore, clearly also conjure the financial market manipulators of today.
I’m with the film’s panners on one point: the two main characters’ portrayals. Johnny Depp’s Tonto, though not unsympathetic, remains atavistically inscrutable, and Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger’s quantum leap from super-klutz to Robin Hood is plausible purely on the subatomic level. Perhaps this is what the young boy is getting at when, in one of the film’s sporadic returns to the carnival tent, he questions the veracity of Tonto’s tale—ironically, of course, given that his dioramic resurrection is dubious enough.
What this added layering to a film already as multifaceted as a mille-feuille further suggests is that the latest Lone Ranger simply may have been too complex for its own good—at least from a mainstream commercial standpoint. Here’s hoping a more perspicacious posterity gives it a second chance.
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, was published in early 2013.