In a summer when so many Hollywood entertainments, even the halfway decent ones, seem to be on autopilot, it's a relief to find that The Lone Ranger boldly and confidently flies off the rails the first chance it gets. Here's an improbable movie: a darkly cartoonish 149 minute Western that's not only an attempt at bringing to today's audiences the adventures of the old white-hat radio-serial hero and his Native American sidekick, it is also a Fourth of July release in which capitalism and the U.S. Army are major villainous forces, and a live-action Disney movie with a subplot about a prostitute who has a wooden leg that's also a gun. At long last, 2013 has served up a summer tentpole where, no matter what you end up thinking about its quality, you won't hear a description and think "Oh, yeah, another one of those."
This is the work of Gore Verbinski, the talented director who brought us indelible entertainments like the shivery J-horror remake The Ring, the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean and its boisterously overstuffed sequels, and the madcap animated postmodern Western Rango. He has a knack for creating clear, creative imagery that rises out of unrestrained imagination without irretrievably swamping the narrative momentum of his films. The haunted videotape in The Ring contains perhaps the most memorably frightening collection of horror images of the last decade or so. The Pirates films are some of the best large-scale action fantasy efforts in recent memory. And Rango, why that's nothing short of a masterpiece, essentially putting part of the plot of Chinatown into a Western populated by animals and pulling out all the stops on a wild roller-coaster of set pieces, casual surrealism, and tricky thematic loop-de-loops.
His Lone Ranger is a bit of all of the above, bloated, messy, and prone to whiplash between tones in an instant. It's a film of woozy pseudo-mystic native spiritualism, a few red-blooded Rube Goldberg action sequences, and a heaping helping of reflexive genre criticism. There's almost too much going on at all times, but even when it contorts into awkward shapes and narrative confusion, there's bounteous visual satisfaction to be found. After a start in 1933 where an elderly Native American haltingly starts telling the story we're about to see to a young boy visiting a carnival, we're thrown right into the action. It's 1869 and a new prosecutor (Armie Hammer) is on a train to Texas. Also aboard is captured fugitive Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) who is promptly rescued by his gang who shoot up the train and cause it to crash past the station and slam into the sand. So you see, the film is already quite literally off the rails and the plot soon threatens to follow, with only Bojan Bazelli’s gorgeous widescreen celluloid cinematography and the eccentric period-piece bric-a-brac production design to hold it together.
A posse rides out to recapture the criminals, but the gang ambushes them, killing them all. But the prosecutor survives and, in a nod to Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Western Dead Man, a helpful native finds him in the desert. Here the help is Tonto (Johnny Depp, in a performance full of weird tics again, but not entirely successfully), a strange man who wears apparently permanent war paint, a dead bird on his head, and seems to be speaking nonsense half the time. He’s looking to bring Cavendish to justice as well. They team up, Tonto advising the prosecutor to wear a mask, using his assumed death as a disguise to help in their search. With that, The Lone Ranger and Tonto begin their journey. It may seem easy enough, but with a plot this complicated, it takes some time to really get going. As the hunt begins, so to does an all-out war between settlers and the Comanche after it appears a land treaty has been broken in the wake of the Transcontinental Railroad. As if that’s not enough, the film also contains a frontier woman (Ruth Wilson) and her son (Bryant Price) – the Ranger’s nephew – who get caught up in this conflict, as well as a U.S. military man (Barry Pepper), a tenacious railroad official (Tom Wilkinson), and the aforementioned peg-legged prostitute (Helena Bonham Carter). And did I mention that there’s silver in them there hills?
The strains of politics, greed, business, and revenge all twist about in a film that’s complicated, needlessly so, perhaps, and certainly overlong. It’s shockingly cruel and ugly, even literally, the characters are all sweaty and dirty, covered in dust, muck, and dried blood. It’s a "family film" featuring cannibalism, mass killings, a rough-and-tumble tone, and bone-deep cynicism about the future and oft-scoffed "progress." The script by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio is intent on undercutting easy heroism with gags and silliness amidst the historical sadism. It’s a Western with an understanding of the tragedy, the national sin, befalling the Native Americans. This is subversive stuff, occasionally clumsily handled, poking through a film that often feels close to sliding out of control and sometimes does.
It gains a sort of moral force from a wounded spirit that's also played as a joke. Tonto is a madman and an outcast. Years ago, we learn, his tribe was killed. He roams the desert seeking revenge. He babbles and pulls faces, using underestimation as his greatest defense. To treat Tonto as a joke and a tragedy is queasy-making, but the attempt is noble. It's better than playing it straight as simple condescension, even if the execution is questionable. It's a tricky, not entirely successful, portrayal, helped by Depp playing the elderly storyteller who frames the story as a story. Are we to take it all at face value? Not especially. The elderly Depp is housed in a carnival. The events of the film are not without nuance, but are largely broad and even vaguely satiric. Here's a film that's saying perhaps time has passed for these kinds of stories, but gee, aren't they fun anyways?
It's nearly a slog for a while, falling into an odd pattern of jokes, massacres, slapstick, and showdowns. In one scene, the cavalry chases down a tribe, and then we cut back to attempted humor from a horse licking the Lone Ranger's face. Hammer's square-jawed classical performance is sunny and without a hint of winking, the better for the odd details to accrue around him. Long scenes of halting banter between Hammer and Depp sometimes fall flatter than they should, but once plot and other actors enter the scene more forcefully they snap back into a sense of purpose. But even while drifting, it’s at least worth looking at, a film determined to echo John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Buster Keaton on its way to finding new images of its own.
Once all the pieces fall into place, the film hurtles through a climactic series of events most satisfying, especially a massive sequence involving two trains and plenty of expertly and elaborately choreographed and clearly edited bits of action set to the “William Tell Overture.” To get there, though, is a mad, uneven jumble, but I can almost say it's worth it. The film is befuddling and beguiling, exhausting and exciting. I left worn out, but more than ever convinced that Verbinski's one of the best directors cooking up blockbusters in Hollywood today. In lesser hands this would've been even more of a mess than it already is. Here’s a work of visual invention and real subversion, albeit so bustlingly uneven that it made my head spin.
My affection for the film lingered even as the critical reaction grew increasingly negative. I went back to the theater and saw it again, not because I wanted to see what others hated, but to see again the parts of the film I - and a band of defenders - admired. (I was especially craving another look at that dazzling climactic action sequence.) Upon a second viewing, my opinion of the film has only grown. I still think it's a film dangerously close to sliding out of control. But I'm more convinced that Verbinski's a filmmaker in complete control. There's a difference between a film that's tonally slippery and tonally sloppy. The Lone Ranger is the former. A common comparison kicking around cinephile circles, at least amongst those of us who like this picture, is Spielberg's to-this-day underrated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Both films feature a structure – early and late action with comedy, shocking violence and gross out gags in between – and tonal mix – dark, strange, funny, exciting, silly – that could easily catch a viewer unaware and knock them clear out of enjoyment. But repeat viewings, when more fully aware of the big picture and the filmmaker's strategies, reveal a hurtling fine-tuned roller coaster of an adventure film. Those moments where the whole thing seemed to take a curve too fast and you thought the clattering contraption would go flying off in a deadly crash? That was no mistake. It was built to thrill. The Lone Ranger is a terrific film, boldly conceived and executed to subvert expectations. Instead of viewing the film as a failed version of what it's not, trying to fit the film into boxes - modern summer blockbuster, live-action Disney movie - into which it refuses to fit easily, it's far better to view and enjoy the film as it is.
Note: A second viewing also sharpened the plot for me. Scenes that I found a little confused at first are improved with the full knowledge of what's to come, a clarity that extends to some of Tonto's seemingly nonsense dialogue, which, when viewed within the full context, reveals that he's generally a step ahead of the Lone Ranger, and the audience as well.