The Lone Ranger
Directed by: Gore Verbinsky
Starring: Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham-Carter
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material (Could be R in this reviewer’s opinion. See review.)
The Lone Ranger is an American icon from a time long past. He lived on the radio and on black and white TV sets in a time when cowboy sagas and problematic portrayals of Native Americans were a big part of popular culture. When Gore Verbinsky and the rest of his “Pirates of the Caribbean” filmmaking crew set out to remake “The Lone Ranger” they clearly tried to give that some thought – word has it that they had Comanche advisors to help with authenticity, for example. But they also wanted to please fans of the original material, plus fans of their own material. The result is a bizarre mishmash of the awesome and the cringe-inducing. I’m sure there are folks who will love this movie (and there’s a fair amount to like!), but I am not one of them.
The story is a classic Western, involving the railroad coming to the West and unethical rich folks taking advantage of pretty much anybody they have to in order to get what they want. The one man who stands between them and vast power is young John Reid (Armie Hammer), a district attorney from the coast back in town to visit family. He forms part of a posse that rides out with his brother, a Texas Ranger, but they are betrayed and only John survives. He’s found by Tonto (Johnny Depp), an eccentric Comanche who claims to be able to talk to animals and says John came back from the dead. Tonto has his own reasons to be angry at the folks who killed John’s brother, so the two team up and set out to set things right.
Seems fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, as the film proceeds, the issues start piling up along with the bodies. An entire tribe of Comanche are slaughtered, and after a brief moment of solemnity, Tonto makes a joke to get us back on the chuckles train. We’re told that several other settlements of Comanche were wiped out as well, but that’s never really addressed, either. It’s genocide on a small scale – but as students of history know, that same sort of thing happened all over the West. Native Americans were pushed onto the worst land to starve, killed outright, and otherwise abused constantly.
How do you make a lighthearted, silly movie set in this time period and including a member of a slaughtered tribe? The slaughter and imprisonment of an entire race isn’t particularly funny. It takes a careful touch to handle this kind of material well, and Verbinsky and company clearly do not have it.
Worse, the more you dig into the work Depp did to build Tonto’s character, the uglier things get. I strongly recommend my readers check out www.nativeappropriations.com and read Adrienne Keene’s work on the issue. In short: Tonto’s appearance is heavily based on a painting by a white man who openly admits his work is fantasy. Worse, Tonto is pretty much a mashup of the worst stereotypes of Native Americans: the Noble Savage, the Spirit Warrior, etc.
It’s a shame, really, because the action sequences have the same brilliance we’ve come to expect from this group of filmmakers. The finale is a good 20 minutes long, full of chases, explosions, gunfights, and train wrecks. It’s fantastic! William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson make fabulous villains, one an outlaw and the other a businessman. Armie Hammer is just fine as the Lone Ranger – he and Tonto almost have an awesome “this guy can’t shoot and kind of useless but the Native American is competent and knows what he’s doing” thing going near the beginning, but of course that doesn’t really last.
Ultimately, whether you’ll enjoy “The Lone Ranger” or not probably depends on how sensitive you are to racism and violence. It’s not as graphic as most R-rated movies are, but it’s pretty intense for a PG-13 one. We see the reflection of a villain cutting out a man’s heart and eating it, for example, and bodies floating downriver. Some of the violence is cartoonish, but a lot isn’t. Watching someone’s face as they’re eviscerated just out of shot is a little beyond PG-13 to my mind. Plenty of folks are boycotting “The Lone Ranger” because of its portrayal of Native Americans, and they have good reason to – and there are other reasons to dislike it, too. If you just want to turn your brain off for a couple hours in an air conditioned movie theater, however, it will likely serve your purpose.