The Lone Ranger: Better Than Expected

Another plane ride, another unexpected movie review.  I seriously hadn’t planned on watching The Lone Ranger, but boredom plus free makes for some powerful incentives.

I didn’t watch the film in theaters because it just didn’t seem worth $10 – $12.  I’m still not sure whether it’s worth that much, but the movie passed the “acceptably fun” test for being stuck without other entertainment on a plane, and it didn’t explode with the offensiveness I had expected.  That’s not to say that others won’t find it offensive, since some clearly already have (Hanay Geiogamah, for example).  In fact, coming around to it, I had such low expectations for the movie that it can’t help but have exceeded them.  Please bear this in mind.  I’ll do my best not to spoil anything too much, and I’ll warn you before the spoilers get hot and heavy… but some are inevitable.  Read on as you see fit.

I was actually pretty happy with the start of the movie.  The opening scene takes place at a carnival in San Francisco, in 1933.  A little boy dressed up to look like the Lone Ranger wanders into a building full of Wild West dioramas, offering a sadly stilted and shabby vision of how the Wild West once looked; wandering from one diorama to the next, he pauses in front the Native American display, only to be startled into drawing and firing his cap gun when the “brave” moves.  This is the first of many scenes showing off white settlers’ reflexive violence towards Native Americans.  Take it how you will… while I saw it as a pointed commentary, others may just see Hollywood doing intolerant business as usual.  The man standing in the diorama is, of course, Tonto.  He is clearly very old, seeming rather confused and possibly senile.  The rest of the movie is the story that he tells the boy, and he is occasionally interrupted by the boy’s questions and objections.

This, of course, opens up the possibility of having an unreliable narrator, which I rather liked.  As someone who loves to listen to, tell, and read stories, having the movie itself be a story told to me by one of the characters in the movie automatically wins it some points.  Having the narrator not be inherently trustworthy is sometimes frustrating for me, but in this case I thought it made the whole story even better.  The story being told is a legend, after all, and I think having it shrouded in mystery is pretty satisfying.

Furthermore, our doubts about the truth of the story are heightened by recurring moments of magical and semi-magical mystery.  While the magic at hand almost never involves shiny on-screen effects, it’s clear that magical and otherwise inexplicable things are happening.  This is just the way I like it, actually, and the moments of unreality help to heighten the sense that you are listening to the story of someone you can’t quite believe.

Dancing around to avoid spoiling things too quickly, let’s talk about the presentations of the movie’s villains and the movie’s Native Americans.

As you might have guessed based on that last sentence, the two are not the same.  The villains are all white men ruled by their own greed, and white men who are more interested in siding with other white men than they are willing to admit that they’ve made horrible, terrible mistakes.  I, personally, found these motivations to be both appropriate and pleasing, especially with the man who’d rather choose to believe that he did the right thing than admit that he committed mass murder.  That seems very human to me, and was a better depiction of “normal” villainy than I had expected.

The Native Americans, meanwhile… well, I’d been worried that Tonto’s behavior was going to be presented as typical.  That would have been pretty insulting, to say the least, given that Tonto plays the role of the heroic fool in a fashion that should be pretty familiar to fans of other Johnny Depp movies.  Not exactly complimentary as a depiction of a people.  Instead the Comanche seemed like very reasonable people, albeit depressed, pessimistic (they have good reason to be) and suicidal “reasonable” people.  They are very aware of the dire situation they find themselves in, and seem resigned to the fact that they will all die soon for little reason.  Given the depressing history of the U.S.A.’s interactions with Native Americans, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.

I can’t think of how to talk more about this without giving you *SPOILERS*.  So please be aware that from here on out you risk learning more about the movie than you wanted to know.  I’ll be as circumspect as I think I can be, but I might ruin everything for you anyway.  Oh, and be sure to skip down past the section labelled “end of spoilers,” since there’s a wee bit more for you there.

Through the course of the movie it is made pretty clear that nobody really thinks that Tonto is totally sane.  While he’s clearly more-or-less capable, it turns out that his tragic backstory drove him partially or all-the-way crazy.  This is revealed by the Comanche after our heroes are caught by them; to the Comanche, Tonto is tragic, despised, and only grudgingly admired for trying to be heroic in an effort to make up for his previous failings.  They regard his insanities as his way of coping with the terrible things that he set in motion many years ago.

Their own way of coping with their miserable circumstances, however, seems to be borrowed directly from The Last Samurai.  Which is to say, they commit suicide in a last glorious charge against far better armed U.S. soldiers.  This seemed less than totally appropriate, and the scene didn’t make all that much sense to me.

Also mildly problematic was the fact that some of Tonto’s insanity seemed to borrow from the mythologies of other (quite distant) tribes.  There’s no real reason that the writers can’t go borrowing, but I would have liked it more if they could find some similar Comanche-specific (or at least more local) mythology for Tonto to latch onto.

Here my thoughts break down into snapshots.  I was actually pretty happy to have them follow in the mould of some of Jim Jarmusch‘s films, with the occasional “stupid white man” remark levelled at the thick-headed and idealistic Kemosabe.  Unfortunately, I don’t think they achieved quite the same effect that Jarmusch usually does.  I was disappointed that the film failed to pass the Bechdel test, but was totally unsurprised.  I was also disappointed but unsurprised by the usual lack of speaking non-white, non-Tonto characters… Hollywood’s west continues to be reliably whitewashed, much like their casting decisions.  Which brings to mind another point: while I enjoyed Depp’s Tonto, I was sad that yet another opportunity for Native American actors to play high profile Native American characters was passed up.

Also, the very end of the movie seems like it’s going for something of a “What a twist!” moment: after finishing his story for the boy (and delivering the moral of the story, which was actually pretty hunky-dory), Tonto appears to turn into a crow and fly away, something that was repeatedly hinted at in the rest of the movie.  He still seems crazy, but this clear depiction of magic seems meant to lend some credence to the rest of the story, a sort of “And it was all really true!” moment.  I’m not sure how I felt about that, though the boy’s surprise was pretty funny.  Maybe it was supposed to encourage the boy to follow the moral of the story, because Tonto had just shown him it was mostly true?  I’m not sure.

*END OF SPOILERS*

Sadly, the pacing of the movie felt off.  It didn’t feel like they really managed the film’s energy and the audience’s excitement the way that they should have for what was clearly meant to be an action-comedy.  Plenty of cool stuff happened towards the end of the movie, and tension certainly built, but I don’t think it delivered the same rising tide of excitement and fun that it seemed to promise.

So while I had plenty of fun watching the movie for free while I had nothing else to do, I’m not sure how strongly I can recommend this film.  It would certainly make good movie + friends + beer material, but it’s no stellar example of cinematic craftsmanship.  And if you think anything I mentioned here would rub you the wrong way, well… perhaps it’s best avoided.

Oh, by the way: it’s been suggested (with what seems like good reason) that Bass Reeves was one of the primary inspirations for the character of The Lone Ranger.  From what I’ve read about him, he seems like a total BAMF.

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