The recent release of the much-awaited Gore Verbinski-Jerry Bruckheimer collaboration, The Lone Ranger, has, for the most part, not enchanted mainstream critics, but I am prepared to take issue with this negative view. To be sure, this ambitious action flick with its revisionist view of the legendary Western characters is a flawed film, but it is also not without its many intriguing moments.
Part of the difficulty in accepting this Lone Ranger remake lies in determining its genre. It is clear that the Disney film never intends to pay homage to Hollywood Westerns, nor does it attempt to offer a full-fledged parody of them. Rather, it hopes to straddle a tenuous middle ground, invoking the beloved archetypes with a sly, tongue-in-cheek humor and reworking classic characters into a post modernist, politically correct aesthetic. The twists and turns of Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott, and Justin Haythes’s screenplay are often so dizzying as to become disorienting – but no more so than in a theatre of the absurd drama – which is, in fact, the genre to which this film most belongs. If the movie’s creators are overly ambitious in the scope of their retelling, they do, nonetheless, score moments of brilliant and genuine emotion.
This Lone Ranger takes on some monumental historical themes not generally addressed in the moralistically simple, conventional Western – namely, those of Manifest Destiny, the genocide of Native Peoples, the greed of industrial barons, the price of progress, the definition of justice, and the rape of a primeval continent’s natural resources. One has to listen carefully to the script to pick up some of these leitmotifs, and a second viewing lets them emerge with greater clarity. “Nature is out of balance,” Tonto tells the audience repeatedly, and the violence and devastation which follow bear him out.
In tackling this huge agenda, Gore Verbinski’s direction sometimes becomes busy, almost to a fault. The film could use a little trimming by paring down a few of the overly lengthy action sequences; that said though, the final sequence orchestrated to the William Tell Overture (its long-awaited use in the film) is nothing short of masterful in execution, cinematic allusions, and sheer joie de vivre. The level of violence in the film is extreme – part of the effort to not gloss over history’s atrocities – though a less graphic approach, at least in some scenes, might have fared better.
The visuals of the film locations are splendidly atmospheric – the majestic sandscapes and canyons of Monument Valley, for example. Verbinski has an eye for mythic moments such as the Lone Ranger arcing through a fiery conflagration on Silver (reminiscent of Brunnhilde on Grane in the Immolation Scene). or the comic image of Tonto and Reid buried up to their necks in sand, two heads exchanging one-liners (recalling Samuel Beckett’s Endgame). or the hanging tree in the desert, a memento mori from a Frederic Church painting). Then, too, the various icons of the Lone Ranger legend are acquired one at a time – the hat, the mask, the horse, the silver bullet – all building to the finale. And there is the reimagining of Tonto with his corvid headdress and shaman war paint, the latter inspired by a native painting, but used by Johnny Depp as an ironic device.
Depp is, of course, at the center of the film, the i for the remake, and, as always, he creates his own, one-of-a-kind characterization. If viewers were expecting his zany Jack Sparrow, they would likely be disappointed. Whatever humor Depp brings to Tonto is, rightly so, far more subtle. He imbues Tonto with a mixture of dignity and daftness, using primarily his eyes in an otherwise deadpan mask-like countenance to do most of his talking. When he appears as the ancient Tonto, who frames the narrative in a Wild West diorama, he brings an almost immobile pathos to his face and a silent film shuffle to his walk.
Armie Hammer possesses a handsome, athletic presence, allowing John Reid with his wide-eyed innocence and idealism to transform gradually into the outlaw. In an understated way he makes an admirable and amusing foil to Depp’s dour Tonto. Tom Wilkinson’s villainous railroad baron never succumbs to caricature, though he is sufficiently unctuous and scheming. Helena Bonham Carter makes a memorable madam, Red Harrington, with her scrimshaw leg add southern drawl. James Badge Dale is a solid Dan Reid with Ruth Wilson as his plucky frontier wife. William Fichtner is a repulsive Butch Cavendish, a monster of epic proportions. Barry Pepper models his cavalry officer Fuller after a pompous Custer, and Saginaw Grant makes a stately and solemn Chief Big Bear.
Discussion of the cast would not be complete without a mention of the equine actors playing Silver (and Scout). The Lone Ranger’s horse is elevated here to a mythic spirit horse, and his appearances and antics are both magical and endearing. The various crows, both alive and dead, are powerful symbols of death and destiny, while footage of majestic buffalo herds have a raw energy.
Hans Zimmer’s eclectic and frequently derivative score is appropriately lush and romantic in a silent screen way, and he playfully incorporates recognizable musical allusions to excellent effect.
This Lone Ranger is less a tale of heroes of the American West than it is an elegy for a lost native people and an epitaph for a turbulent and traumatic era of our history. “We are already ghosts,” Tonto mutters with pithy gloom halfway through the movie. When the frail Tonto disappears into the 1933 desert at the close of the credits, one grasps the vanishing legend. But then, the inert crow from Tonto’s headdress has also come to life and flies off out of the diorama, challenging that fine line between reality and myth, flesh and spirit.
Indeed, in this remake of the Lone Ranger, the masked man and his sidekick seem to be ghosts of our imagination: ironic incarnations of mythic figures retooled as spirit walkers.