Review/Analysis: The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger is most likely not what you expect, though it probably has at least one or two moments (or silver bullets) aimed at you.  It’s not a devoted adaptation of the beloved TV show from the 50’s or the radio show from the 30’s.  It’s not a “Disneyfied” (hate that word, it’s so condescending) version of a Western, aimed at kids.  It’s not Pirates of the Caribbean on horseback, though your ability to enjoy The Lone Ranger might be related to your ability to enjoy that saga of movies.  It’s not even a live-action adaptation of Rango.  So what is it?

The Lone Ranger is a rip-roaring, funny, violent, subversive, political, Western action extravaganza.  It’s creative and interesting, a wild ride that is constantly shifting tone and style and keeps things fresh for its entire two and a half hour running time (a common complaint among film critics).  It’s gritty and real in a way that Man of Steel could never have imagined, and the final half-hour of is some of the most creative and exciting action seen on film in recent memory.

The story of The Lone Ranger actually sticks to the well-established mythology from the character’s history.  John Reid, younger brother of Texas Ranger Dan Reid, becomes the sole survivor of an ambush by the villainous Butch Cavendish, dons a mask and becomes the Lone Ranger, a hero fighting for justice along with his faithful companion, Tonto.  But that’s all on the surface, and maybe all most people were expecting.  To understand the film you have to go back to the beginning, in fact to the very first scene.

The film actually opens in 1933 at a carnival, where a young boy dressed as the Lone Ranger pays to enter an exhibit on the Old West.  Inside he finds a stuffed buffalo, a stuffed bear, and a diorama of “The Noble Savage in his native habitat.”  Has he stares at the representation of an elderly Native American, it suddenly stares back, shocked by the boy’s appearance.  He proposes a trade for the boy’s peanuts, eating some and feeding some to the dead crow on his head, and begins to tell the story of how the Lone Ranger came to be.  This framing device sets the stage for the film, as we’re reliving everything through Tonto’s memory.

We meet John Reid, the new district attorney for the region, reading the treatises of John Locke while the rest of his railcar partakes in a worship service, singing hymns and asking him to join them in prayer.  John is not a cowboy, he’s not a gunfighter, he’s a lawyer, a city slicker with a firm belief in justice and the due process of the law.  His brother and the rest of the local Rangers are supposed to meet him at the station, along with Butch Cavendish, who is also on the train in chains, on his way to be hanged.  Chained next to Butch is Tonto, who watches as Butch’s gang shows up to spring him from custody.  John, concerned after seeing the shadow of a man running along the roof of the train, goes to investigate, only to end up chained to Tonto by Butch, who escapes.

What follows is merely the first exciting action sequence featuring a train in the film, as Tonto and John try to escape while also saving the passengers on the now runaway train.  Trains are central to this film (Sheldon Cooper must be thrilled), as they are both the engine behind the plot and the stage on which it’s told.  After being deputized as a Ranger, John sets off after Butch with his brother and the other Rangers, only for all of them to be killed during an ambush.  Tonto arrives, burying the dead and trading with the corpses for trinkets, and discovers that John is still alive.  Tonto believes him to be the spiritwalker, a warrior who can’t be killed, and he gives John a mask and the two ride off for justice.

That all sounds relatively simple, but there’s just so much to The Lone Ranger.  There’s Tom Wilkinson’s railroad tycoon, who devotes everything to the cause of progress.  There’s Barry Pepper’s cavalry captain, whose cause is retaliation against the Comanche for attacks on white settlements.  There’s the motherload of a silver deposit, of an amount powerful enough to change the fate of the west.  And that’s without mentioning the whorehouse madam played by Helena Bonham Carter or John’s widowed sister-in-law (who may have married the wrong brother, and who is desired by Wilkinson’s tycoon) and her son.

My point here is that there’s a lot going on in The Lone Ranger, and while the villains and the heroes may be clear, the path they all follow is considerably less so.  But all of that would be just noise if the movie didn’t have such a fantastic duo at its center.  Armie Hammer plays John Reid, a man unaccustomed to action but capable of stepping up.  He has an internal struggle to find a balance between the law he believes in and the realities of the way the law works in the west.  He constantly stresses his quest for justice, with the implication being that anything more is simply vengeance, and it’s all perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the classic character without seeming cheesy or shallow.

The other half of the duo is Johnny Depp’s Tonto, who might seem at first glance to be simply a Native American version of Jack Sparrow.  The characters have little in common, however, other than outlandish makeup and the fact that Johnny Depp is behind them.  Depp’s Tonto is in many ways the star of the picture, and is definitely more capable than John Reid at first.  It’s a far cry from the subservient Tonto of old, which was Depp’s main motivation to reinvent the character.  Tonto is the brains behind the operation, with the Lone Ranger often a step behind.  As things progress they begin to become equals, in a way that feels much more appropriate in our modern age.

As for the question of the white Depp playing a Native American, the easiest answer is to say it works.  For the most part, Depp is the reason this film got made at all, and it was his decision to play Tonto.  He uses the part to both play into common stereotypes and to subvert them.  He’s the most rounded character in the piece.  Would it be nice to see a Tonto written with this amount of depth but played by an actual Native American?  Of course it would, but Depp’s performance does nothing to degrade the image of Native Americans.  In fact, the film makes very clear that one shouldn’t take him to be representative of an entire people.  The other Comanches are nothing like him, and look down on many of the ways in which he plays into the common stereotypes.  Tonto’s backstory gives us a reason why, but I’m not going to spoil it.  The whole things is handled in a way that subverts the handling both of Native Americans on film and minorities in general.

A lot of that cleverness comes down to the writing.  Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the writers behind Pirates of the Caribbean, were joined by Justin Haythe for this outing, and have crafted a complex story that has some interesting things to say about a variety of topics.  They’ve combined, again, with Gore Verbinski, who seems to me the perfect choice for this film.  He has a fantastic sensibility for action, but he also knows his way around comedy and has an artist’s eye.  His usual score collaborator, Hans Zimmer, does a great job of sounding original while pulling from all of the classic Western score types (hints of Silverado, The Magnificent Seven and the “Spaghetti Westerns”) while incorporating the famous “William Tell Overture” at the right moments.

In all, it’s a lovingly put together film, and feels infinitely more real than many of the other blockbusters of the summer (Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness).  It’s very telling that the list of stuntmen and stuntwomen in the credits is just as long as the visual effects people (and got an appreciative mumbling from the remaining audience as it continued to scroll and scroll and scroll).  But there’s nothing typical about it.  It can be very funny, filled with slapstick and absurdist humor (specifically with Silver the horse), and equally, brutally violent, though largely bloodless, from bullet holes aplenty to the cannibalistic tendencies of the villain.

And while it’s not the deepest of stories, with the villains clearly visible, the character motivations still feel real and believable.  In many ways, The Lone Ranger is pretty crazy, and probably not what most people are expecting.  It’s long, violent, subversive and complicated, which may not appeal to everyone.  But for me, I’ll take an unconventional, genuinely exciting ride of a movie any day.  I wish Hollywood would make more films this way.  If you keep an open mind, I’m sure you could enjoy it.  I know I did, and judging by the reactions in the completely full theater I was in, lots of other people did too.

A

Analysis

*Spoilers Below*

There are a few things in The Lone Ranger that I think are worth talking about.  Firstly, in many ways it resembles another reboot of a popular 1950’s show.  I’m talking, of course, about 1998’s The Mask of Zorro.  Both films are about masked folk heroes, both revolve around a secret mine and precious metals, and both involve the political history of a region along with a corrupt, blonde member of the American military.  Both feature actors playing characters of a different ethnicity (Depp’s Tonto and Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both from Wales, playing Spaniards).  Both movies feature some gruesome scenes; in The Lone Ranger Butch eats Dan Reid’s heart after killing him, while in The Mask of Zorro Captain Love keeps a severed head and hand in jars of spirits from which Zorro takes a drink.

Yet Zorro was widely applauded while The Lone Ranger has been widely criticized.  Part of it may be simply changing times, part of it may be prejudice against Disney, part of it may be a general weariness regarding Johnny Depp and the similar Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  In all, I feel like much of my complaining in my previous article this week was correct.

But more interesting by far are some of the messages that seem to exist in The Lone Ranger.  It’s actually pretty funny that this movie was released for the 4th of July, when it’s pretty critical of American history.  Soldiers are seen slaughtering Native Americans, in the words of the cavalry Captain, repaying “tenfold” the attacks on settlements.  In the end, it turns out the the attacks on the settlements were actually perpetrated by Butch, under the orders of the railroad tycoon, in order to justify violating a treaty which would cause the railroad to have to detour around Comanche territory.  In the film, the “corporate” interest manipulated public opinion in order to direct governmental policy for its own benefit.  And as a result, innocent lives were lost and an entire people were scorned.

Of course, none of this is particularly new.  The American government did horrible things to the native population, even before there was an American government to claim responsibility for it.  At this point, it’s not especially bold to make this claim, as even the most patriotic Americans will probably admit the atrocities that occurred, even if it is a bit surprising to see a major Hollywood film on the 4th of July make the claim.  The people who say Disney just makes childish, whitewashed films need to pay more attention.

But there’s something even more fascinating.  I mentioned earlier that we first see John Reid reading John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” in the middle of a Christian worship service.  The preacher is giving a sermon, and the woman sitting across from him is asleep.  Her daughter drops a doll, which he retrieves and then accidentally drops out the window (it’s hilarious).  The little girl starts to cry, waking the mother.  She offers for John to pray with her, saying she’s a Presbyterian, but he says that “the only book I need is right here,” pointing to what he had been reading.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re turning the Lone Ranger into an atheist, but they’re clearly showing that for him the “laws of man” so-to-speak are what is most important to him.  To him, the enlightenment ideals are what America was founded on, and that’s what he bases his ideas of justice on.  There is no room for “an eye for an eye” in his worldview.  And when you consider the atrocities committed by the government and those in power in the country throughout the course of the movie, it makes for an interesting picture of America.  (The cavalry Captain even shouts, “For God and country!” before massacring the Comanche attackers.)  In many ways, as an outlaw he’s fighting to restore America to what he thinks it should be.

Of course, we also have Tonto.  Tonto tells the whole story to a little white boy while dressed up in a diorama.  He feeds his dead bird, and in many ways acts in the way that movies have always portrayed Native Americans.  His english is not nearly so broken, and it doesn’t sound any worse than anyone else who is speaking a second language, but he does a lot of “crazy” spiritual stuff, the way that Native American characters have done in countless movies and shows through the years.  Yet we eventually learn that he was responsible for his entire tribe being wiped out and lost his mind as a result.  When Tonto and John are captured by Comanches, John tries to get in good with them by mimicking Tonto’s behavior, and the chief suggests that John might have sunstroke.

The message is clear.  Just because Tonto does these crazy things, don’t assume that that’s the way things really are.  Inside the story, Tonto is clearly made out to be the exception, in many ways excusing his behavior by making it definitively clear that in now way is he supposed to represent the Comanches or anyone else.  But we also have an added layer in that Tonto is telling his story while in this diorama.  We can’t know how accurate the story is, but it would be a fair assumption that he is portraying himself in a way consistent with his job in the carnival sideshow.  In the end, he puts on a 1930’s suit and hat and walks off into the desert, choosing not to dress like a stereotype when alone.  I’m sure if someone is looking to be offended by Depp’s portrayal, they’ll find a way to, but to me it’s pretty clear that the new Tonto could not be less of a caricature.  I think it’s safe to say that the filmmakers, writers and cast did everything necessary to make sure no one would come away believing in any of the stereotypes of the old days.

I have a million more thoughts, about the critics’ reactions, about the quality of Tonto’s old-age makeup, about why there needs to be a Best Stunts category in the Oscars, but I think I’ll stop here.  As I said in my review, there’s a lot to The Lone Ranger, and I think it’s definitely worth your time and money.  It may not be for everyone (even if I absolutely loved it), but it’s fun and funny and a great way to spend an afternoon.

32 thoughts on “Review/Analysis: The Lone Ranger

  1. I didn’t read the spoilers because I want to see the movie. Guess it didn’t deserve the D- that it was given in the Charlotte Observer. When reading your review I, too, thought of Sheldon Cooper, even before you mentioned him. I look forward to seeing it after vacation.

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  2. What do we make of actors playing outside their race? While obviously not as insensitive as blackface, should it be condoned? What are the ramifications for allowing it? For censoring it? Who gets to be the moral arbiter of cinema?

    I haven’t seen the film yet, I assumed it to be 90 minutes of trains interspersed with Depp and Hammer walking away from things, but that birth of the nation theme you mentioned has piqued my interest.

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    • I don’t know that I have an answer for actors playing outside their race. But I know there have been some excellent performances to come out of the practice (Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia for example). I know that The Lone Ranger would not have gotten made if Depp had not wanted to play Tonto, so as much as I might like to see a Native American in the part, the movie wouldn’t have gotten made in that case. On a personal level, I don’t have a problem with people playing outside their “race”. They’re actors and the most important thing to me is that they are the best actor for the part. But it’s important that a white actor not play a minority role as some kind of stereotype, as a caricature instead of a character, or claim to be representative of an entire people. But I think all things should be allowed in art, just as people have a right to be offended by anything.

      As for the movie, it’s much more interesting than one might assume from the trailers and the reviews. It is a lot of trains and Depp and Hammer walking away from things (150 minutes instead of 90 minutes), but there’s a lot more to it. It’s not for everyone, though. This analysis was very much my interpretation. Some of the things I mentioned are obvious and I would hope anyone would pick up on. Others might just have been me overstepping and reading into it.

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      • I think the last time Gore Verbinski ever made a movie under two and a half hours it was 2002. Too bad we’ll never get his nine hour Bioshock.

        I also don’t have a problem with actors playing outside their race, as long as it doesn’t become a ridiculous farce, as you mentioned. I think people object because it’s the culture they feel the actor is stealing, or worse, white-washing, but that argument completely overlooks the fact that if actors weren’t allowed to portray any culture other than the one they identify with, then we’d have a problem indeed. I think one of cinemas great tools is the way it allows us to empathize on a visceral level almost immediately, and if Johnny Depp has to dress like THAT to be able to do it, then power to him. It’s not so much a reflection on Hollywood that a studio wouldn’t give a 200+ million dollar tentpole project to a Native American actor, there are very few actors other than Johnny Depp, regardless of their race, who could even fathom pulling that off. And let’s not forget that Will Smith is one of those actors.

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      • Excellent insights!

        I agree. It seems the Native community is split on their opinions (not surprising, they are a large and diverse community). Jay Silverheels himself started an acting school for Native young people in the hopes of breaking Hollywood stereotypes and getting more Native to play themselves (he also tried to get Tonto to speak non-broken English, but was up against the Hollywood Machine of the 50s). Sometimes you need a particular storyteller, actor, whatever, to bring the story to the audience (otherwise no one sees it). Paying too much attention to ethnicity can be another kind of discrimination. It’s art.

        I once heard an Onondaga leader say “what kind of stories are you going to tell your kids?” This film is a big, shaggy tall tale (the Western is America’s mythology), and like all myths, it depends not on historical fact, but on deeper Truths that are revealed by the story. I think much of the audience just went along for the ride, not really getting the deeper humor, themes, and mythic images. One of my favorites is the whole end scene (not in the novelization at all)… Tonto, having told the tale to a new generation, a new Ranger, dusts off the suit of a new era (with a tennis racket, no less), raises a bowler hat to his head (still wearing the old crow of his former life)…

        …then the boy sees the crow/raven fly off, shiny and new and full of life… redemption, ressurection…

        …and Tonto limps off into the desert with his suitcase and his bowler hat and his 20th century clothes and shoes. A man caught between worlds, not riding gloriously off into the sunset at all. But still there, surviving.

        And the Legend lives on.

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        • Thanks for the comment! I really loved the end credits with the old Tonto shuffling away from the camera. It was fitting yet unexpected.
          I agree with what you said, sometimes you just need the right artist to bring something together, regardless of race. But I still would love to see more Native Americans on screen, both so that Native roles can be played by Natives, and just for the general benefit of greater diversity.
          Thanks for reading!

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  3. I was honestly about to fall asleep at one point. Just not a very fun or entertaining movie, and more of one that just lingers its ways through it’s gruesome run-time. Good review.

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  4. People, this is an a-c-t-i-o-n- m-o-v-i-e. NOT a d-o-c-u-m-e-n-t-a-r-y. Notice at the end how it credits ‘Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinsky’ – NOT “National Geographic”?? Johnny Depp is a character actor, playing a Comanche Indian. Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams have both portrayed women. Actors pretend to be other races/sexes when they accept roles. It’s what they do for a job. Also, there are photos taken in the early 1900s by a man named Edward Curtis, which clearly show Crow Indians wearing birds upon their heads, if perhaps not as artfully arranged as Tonto’s in TLR. We saw the movie with friends, a group including three generations, and everybody thought it was great. Not sure who bought off all the critics who panned it. Go and enjoy!

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    • I agree that it was unfairly and uniformly criticized, but even as an action movie it has a responsibility to be sensitive to issues of race and ethnicity. And Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams did not play women, they played men pretending to be women. (A better example to help your case might have been Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia, but even that fantastic performance is still controversial.)
      But I agree with you that the movie deserved better reviews, and from my analysis I think I made it clear that they went a long way in trying to subvert stereotypes. Thanks for reading and the comment!

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  6. One of the finest things they did in this film was the framing story: Tonto telling the tale to a new generation. This allows for not only his viewpoint, but for the whole story to take on a huge, shaggy tall tale quality, a true mythic version of the American West. It is not history, (as someone noted, the credits do not say National Geographic). Heard a story on NPR (National Public Radio) the other day, an author talking about his book (Zealot: Life and time of Jesus of Nazareth)… a point he made was how cultures before the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Science saw stories. Facts and history were not as important as the deeper truths the story illuminated. The Lone Ranger has always been a Western (the American Myth), and a mythic tale full of archetypes (there’s a difference between that and stereotypes). This film has, under its big budget action summer blockbuster surface, some great mythic imagery, archetypal characters, and legendary moments.

    If you want a serious Native viewpoint, read some native authors (Sherman Alexie, Vine Deloria), or find a copy of Smoke Signals or Powwow Highway. As for this film, Native opinion may vary (after all, it is a continent full of varied cultures and languages). At least there was Native input, the Comanches adopted Depp, and the Navajos had some input as well… Hollywood isn’t going to tell their story in exactly the same way they will. I think, however, that this film tried. And that there is far more here than meets the eye.

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    • I agree, the framing device is what makes the movie. It’s really a rumination on the art of storytelling and perspective, which is even more interesting when considered with the storytelling aspect of Rango.
      Thanks for the book suggestions, I’ll have to check them out.

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      • Sherman Alexie wrote, among other things “Lone Ranger and Tonto; Fistfight in Heaven” (which became the film Smoke Signals by Chris Eyre). Johnny Depp references the classic Native “dry wit” in an interview. Both Alexie and Vine Deloria (who wrote some history from a Native perspective like Custer Died for Your Sins) have this wonderful, edgy (like, razor-edged) sense of humor. Worth reading for sure.

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  9. It’s great to read a positive review and defense of the film. I feel the same way about other critically derided films, but wasn’t able to enjoy this one. Sometimes our reactions to films are simply a matter of personal taste and hey that’s okay.

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  18. I grew up in the time of the Lone Ranger tv series. I was the double of the kid in the Lone Ranger outfit which was “all the rage” then. I had it all, like he did, double gun, mask, hat ect..
    And unlike him, I am Native American. But just try and find a Tonto outfit then! Yeah, wasn’t going to happen!
    I think the modern adaptation that Depp portrays is very well done. Yes, you still have the little “nueonces” that you expect from him, and the story line gives him the “latitude” to say “yes he has lost some of his mind” due to his choices in his younger years. So who isn’t guilty there? He symbolizes a tormented “individual”, bent on righting the wrongs inflicted on him and some of his people. How this happens, is what what the story is all about. When it happens, and in contrast to Lathem Coles prediction that ” No one will ever know that you people were ever hear”, he tells his story to a new generation, to keep fighting against corruption and persecution, is he then free to go back home, though there is no longer a Tribe to return to, he is home. A modern Tonto, a Tonto that steps back into a Time ruled world, but, Home. Done, completed and finished task. His crow, resurrected, and penance paid.
    That’s why I love the way this story is portrayed. Redemption in the end.

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  20. Thank you for this review!! Totally agree with you. I´ve seen this film several times, and my opinion is that The Lone Ranger is a GOOD film.

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