' ' Cinema Romantico: The Lone Ranger

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lone Ranger

Opening in 1933 San Francisco, a boy in a Lone Ranger costume enters a carnival booth to see “the way the wild west really was.” He happens upon an all-too lifelike wax figure of The Noble Savage, a Native American Indian in the clichéd pose of tomahawk above head, ready to strike, probably at fair-minded white men with only pure thoughts. The figure is too lifelike, however, because it is literally alive. This is Tonto (Johnny Depp), years after the fact, reduced to playing a version of himself, because at that point in American history where else could he go but the reservation or a traveling tent show? He proceeds to tell the boy the real story of the Lone Ranger, sort of Sheriff Little Bill Daggett of “Unforgiven” telling dime novelist W.W. Beauchamp the real story of English Bob. Just, you know, for Disney.

Well, clearly that’s a considerable portion of the problem – the problem being that this ultra-expensive supposed-to-be summer blockbuster was a thunderous disappointment, financially and critically, pulling down a cool 30% at the numbers-obsessed Rotten Tomatoes. Its marketing and release date, Fourth of July weekend, America's birthday, however, would suggest a movie for kids, an innocent and adventurous yarn, and that’s not entirely what Gore Verbinski’s two-and-a-half-hour behemoth is. Characters in this movie die. They die die, if you know what I mean. Deaths in Jerry Bruckheimer productions are often superfluous, and not every death here rings palpably, but many of them do. Indians are massacred, and not because some cockamamie John Wayne speech reassures us they are merely evil injuns, but because, well, America screwed them. In other words, when that boy goes behind that curtain in the fair booth, he is getting a peek behind the ornamented curtain of American history.

It’s difficult to believe, actually, that a popcorn movie, to use the parlance of our times, would be so brutally forthright. That’s an admirable gamble with a $250 million film and I suppose by evaluating in terms of ticket receipts and Peter Travers quotes, it’s a loser. And hell, maybe if you spend that much you should be catering to everyone, not just those of us who want to see how the west was really won. Except, that’s precisely where “The Lone Ranger” gets itself into trouble, trying to cater to everyone. 

Verbinski and his writers – Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio – are, in spirit, aiming less for and more for “Once Upon A Time In The West”. The Buster Keaton train sequence of “The General” has been name checked repeatedly as a direct inspiration for a sequence in “The Lone Ranger”, but there are also sequences lifted verbatim from Sergio Leone’s 1969 epic. But whereas Leone let those scenes breathe, drawing them out to their fullest, Verbinksi makes the reference and then gallops on. Partly, this is his kinetic style, yes, but he’s also in an understandable rush to fill his film with action and comedy and a ho-hum and incomplete romance that simply meets a mandate. And it yields an age-old juxtaposition, a film roaring at such high speed ultimately finds itself stuck in sleepy valleys.

It’s no coincidence that I have written four paragraphs without mentioning Armie Hammer as the title character, a D.A., John Reid (an early scene shows him countering Presbeteryians’ pleas to pray by holding aloft his law book and terming it his version of the Bible, religiosity giving way to litigiousness), on the trail of the requisite villain (William Fichtner) who kills Reid’s brother whom Reid must avenge. That’s classic wild-west hokum and perhaps the least interesting bit of the film, and while Hammer is serviceable, he is not necessarily a star here, but then he’s not really meant to be the star. The Star, I think, is the production.

Photographed by Bojan Bazelli and with Visual Effects by Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier, “The Lone Ranger” is as optically sumptuous as “The Great Beauty”, more so to my eyes, if I might be so bold, if only because I’m an idiot American rather than a Roman. I’ve lamented CGI, no doubt, but I have never seen it serviced to more beautiful effect than this film’s heart-stopping opening shot of The Golden Gate Bridge under construction. It's not merely a marvel to see but foreshadowing, a suggestion of the nation having truly expanded from coast to coast, swallowing all that came before.

The film’s primary setting as it flashes back is Texas but often The Monument Valley, where so many of the classic westerns were helmed, substitutes, and so maybe I just like Texas more when it’s Arizona. And the effects blend perfectly with the film for two joyous action sequences aboard a steam engine train to open and close the film. The latter is naturally scored to “The William Tell Overture” and this only underscores its symphonic filmmaking, done less as the trendy herky-jerky throttling than as old-fashioned screwball comedy. The concise shots are pieced together so our bearings are always straight, reactions and interactions are as paid close attention to as the colossally swooping money shots.

Railroads are often the starting point for western plots and “The Lone Ranger” is no different. Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is the tycoon intent on making the railroad transcontinental, carving up Native American territory in the process, which he ensures is allowed to happen by ordering outlaws to dress as Comanches and stage raids. These raids will force the U.S. Calvary’s hand with attacks and extermination to follow. This is to say, the subject of genocide is at the film’s forefront, and ultimately one of the reasons The Lone Ranger seems overwhelmed by his own movie is specifically because he and the country for which he supposedly stands is being overwhelmed by greedy capitalism in the guise of progress. Tonto becomes the symbol of the victim of that progress, even as the character, to appeal to the kiddos, I guess, who are probably began cowering under their seats when the villain literally carves out a dead guy’s heart.

Depp in this makeup is problematic, there is no way around it, and it was problematic from the moment he was cast and turned up on posters. Native American culture in the plot is often reduced to a deus ex machine or a means for laughter, and often both, and the Neil Simon-ish bickering between he and The Lone Ranger amidst such real-world atrocities is downright uncomfortable. But then, part of that discomfort is on purpose, putting two men of disparate cultures in proximity for much of the running time. It is pointedly not a Buddy Comedy, but a white man and a red man wholly suspicious of the other and his beliefs, repeatedly forced by circumstance to work in tandem. And Hammer, I think, slyly, plays the part in such a way to reveal that in spite of his confusion with Native American customs, he believes they are getting the raw end of the deal, but that a lone ranger – never mind a legion of them – can make little difference in the grand scheme.

It’s a fascinating, maddening picture, boldly intentioned but tone deaf, beautiful to breathe in but an exercise in excess, one where myth and reality often disastrously collide. Come to think of it, can you think of a more appropriate film to open on America's birthday weekend?


Andrew K. said...

Well, you already know I was a major fan of this. But you raise some fair points in your criticism.
There is something especially significant about your claim that "The Star, I think, is the production."

I agree with it wholeheartedly, and see it as a positive, which is why I worry that the film's poor notices could spell terrible things for Verbinski's career. He is a director with such a firm view of the visual, even if it goes for the grandiose. This movies costs a lot but you can see where the money is going.

But beneath all the loveliness, that lonely walk Tonto takes after the end credits roots the film in a great amount of sadness and despondency.

(I remember you told me you were seeing this a few weeks back and when you didn't report back, I worried that you'd hated it.)

Nick Prigge said...

I see the production being the star as a positive too.

And you are right about Tonto. I mean, that's the confounding thing about this film - it's Depp in the makeup but the character's plight is really truly addressed within its awful historical context. That's so incredible for this kind of film! There's so much about it that's so wonderful! Perhaps I over-dwelled on the negatives in the face of so many positives but I guess both of those running right into each other so frequently is what makes it such a fascinating film to me. I actually can't wait to watch it again.