I’ve written at length about why I admire Gore Verbinski as a filmmaker, and I maintain that there are very few guys working in the blockbuster world who have his skill set when it comes to establishing and maintaining a sense of geography during an action scene. He’s also great at laying out gags and paying them off, and I think he has constructed some truly marvelous moments over the years. While I agree that both of his “Pirates” sequels are overstuffed, the things that they are overstuffed with are so much fun that I don’t care. All you need to do is look at the horrifying mess that is the fourth film to see how much Verbinski’s touch matters with that material.
His last film, “Rango,” revealed a true love for the Western genre, and a willingness to tweak that genre while also paying homage to it. I think “Rango” is a marvelous little movie, strange and surreal at times and visually witty from end to end. It served as a promising glimpse at what Verbinski might be up to with “The Lone Ranger,” particularly with Johnny Depp attached to play Tonto.
I’m tired of the work that Depp does with Tim Burton, but that’s because I think Burton encourages the very worst of his actors. There is a weird hammy tone that is part of Burton’s work that frequently rubs me the wrong way, and it seems like it’s gotten more pronounced each time they’ve collaborated. We’ve gone from the sublime “Edward Scissorhands” to the intolerable “Alice In Wonderland,” and I’ve come to dread the two of them working together. With Verbinski, though, I think Depp is able to indulge his love of the eccentric while also still serving the greater film, and I like what results from the two of them teaming up.
Or at least I did. Until now.
To be fair, Depp is not the main problem with Disney’s disastrous “The Lone Ranger.” This film is a catastrophe of tone, a truly tortured screenplay that seems embarrassed by its central character, and at two-and-a-half hours, it may be the single most punishing experience I’ve had in a theater so far this year. There are so many bad decisions on display here that I feel like it’s a film worth studying, if only to see clearly how not to bring a beloved character back to the big screen.
Then again… is The Lone Ranger really beloved? Sure, the ’50s TV show had an audience in its day, and there’s a recent comic incarnation that has some avid fans, but in terms of pop culture in general, The Lone Ranger is a bit of a non-entity. Until the trailers for this film arrived, my kids had no idea who the character was, and I suspect that’s true of most modern young audiences. There are evergreen characters who don’t have to be an active part of pop culture to still register, but I’m not convinced anyone was out there demanding that there be a new version of this story, and seeing the film they’ve made, I would wager this is the last time we see someone bet big on John Reid and Tonto.
Let’s be clear: this is a terrible film by any standards. Overlong, with a script that reads like a notes session no one ever organized into something coherent, and totally confused about what audience it supposedly plays to, “The Lone Ranger” is grim, ugly, and deeply unpleasant. One thing it fails to be, in any way, is fun, and considering who is involved behind the camera and in front of it, that is truly shocking. If you’re a parent and you’re debating taking younger kids to this one because it is a Disney fan, let me warn you. This is an R-rated movie that has somehow managed to squeak by with a PG-13. It is startlingly violent, and it seems unaware of just how upsetting much of the imagery is. When you cut from the violent genocide of an entire Indian tribe to a wacky scene with Silver the horse standing on a tree branch and wearing a cowboy hat, it’s pretty clear you have no idea what story you’re telling or why.
At one point in the film, one of the main villains played by William Fichtner cuts a man’s heart out of his chest and, in front of the immobilized Lone Ranger, eats it.
I repeat. He cuts the man’s heart out. And then he eats it.
And this is a big summer Disney movie? Really?
Every choice made by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe is a disaster, and they pile up so fast that it becomes numbing. You can start with the half-baked “Little Big Man” wraparound with Johnny Depp playing a hundred year old Tonto (in makeup that makes him look like the old woman in the bathtub in Kubrick’s “The Shining”) who is part of a traveling Wild West Show in San Francisco in the ’30s. He sees a young boy wearing a Lone Ranger mask and seems to mistake the boy for his old friend. Even after he realizes his mistake, he is drawn to tell the boy his story. There is no payoff to this premise, and when you see how it ends, you’ll realize they had no idea how to make it thematically relevant or even vaguely interesting. You could remove the framework completely, and it wouldn’t affect anything in the film at all. It wouldn’t change the film’s message or the story it tells at all. It is literally just an excuse for Depp to wear old-age make-up and chew some scenery.
I could forgive the lame wraparound story if the film itself worked, but the first sign that they’re on the wrong track is the way they’ve imagined the central character. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a book-smart lawyer who went east to get educated, and now he’s returning to the West, determined to bring law and order with him. In the meantime, his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) has been working as a Ranger, rounding up the most dangerous men of the day. As Hammer returns to his childhood home, the terrible outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) has finally been caught, and he’s being transported on the same train where Reid is riding. There’s another prisoner in the same car as Cavendish, a strange Indian with a dead stuffed bird on his head, and Tonto (Johnny Depp) seems perfectly content to be in chains. He’s got his own agenda, but before he can deal with it, Cavendish stages an escape, and it leads to a frantic action sequence in which Tonto and John Reid are first thrown together. There are touches of what makes Verbinski so much fun as a filmmaker in the scene, but it’s over as soon as it begins, and the film settles in for a long, miserable slog.
We learn that Reid’s one-time sweetheart Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) ended up married to his brother, and there’s a lot of yearning looks and tortured silence, but it’s all just busy-work. When Dan and the rest of the Rangers go after Cavendish, John joins them despite having no qualifications for doing so. There’s an ambush, there’s the aforementioned moment where Cavendish munches down on Dan’s heart in front of the immobilized John, and then the origin story begins.
Tonto, who has his own reasons for hunting down Cavendish, finds the bodies of the Rangers and reluctantly rescues John. What follows makes basically no sense, but I get the feeling no one involved with the movie cares. The entire film could be described in two or three sentences when you strip away all the mechanisms piled on top of the bare bones, and none of it is particularly interesting. There are fake Indian attacks, hidden silver mines, and personal secrets that are only gradually revealed, and it all ultimately boils down to a bad guy stealing some money. And again… if it was fun, much of this wouldn’t matter, but Cavendish and his gang are played so violent and so grotesque, and the violence is handled with such a blunt edge, that it’s not fun. At all. And throughout the film, Reid is portrayed as a boob who doesn’t have a genuinely heroic bone in his body. The Tonto characterization is more troubling because it’s so inconsistent and oddly imagined. He is an outcast, a madman broken by a childhood trauma, and all of the “wisdom” he shares is nonsense. You have two characters here who are barely functional, neither one of which seems to have a functional moral compass of any importance, and somehow we’re supposed to root for them to save the day.
By the time the “William Tell Overture” kicks in, I was just irritated. The music marks a major shift in tone, and suddenly it’s like the movie I expected starts to play. There’s about 20 minutes of inventive and hilarious action that cap the film off, but the characters we see in those scenes are not the characters from the rest of the film. It feels like it was dropped in from a much better film, and by the time it’s over, it depressed me because it demonstrated just how off-the-mark everything else was. I think Hammer does exactly what the script asks him to do, and more than ever, I’m convinced he’s a leading man worth watching, but they’ve imagined the character completely wrong, so he never gets a chance to shine. William Fichtner’s in the same boat. He is very good at playing the character they wrote, but he’s cartoonishly evil, and feels like he’s in a different movie than Tom Wilkinson, the film’s true villain. I have a hard time blaming any of the actors, Depp included, because none of this works on the page. You can throw all the talent in the world at a script like this, and in the end, it just doesn’t matter.
I do, however, have to lay blame for the film’s most annoying tic right at the feet of Depp. He was the one who saw that gorgeous painting “I Am Crow,” and he pushed for the crazy stuffed bird that Tonto wears on his head. Tonto pretends to feed it frequently in the film, and so much is made of the bird that I started to half-fear that it was going to come to life to save the day. In the end, it’s a piece of costuming that pulls the center of gravity all out of whack for the film, and it does nothing except give Depp one more twitch to make his character “quirky.”
There’s a moment near the end of the film that perfectly summed up everything wrong with the movie for me. John Reid, mask firmly back in place, prepares to ride off into the sunset, and he pulls the reins, getting Silver to rear up on his back legs, as he calls out, “Hi-yo, Silver… away!” We cut to Tonto watching, who shakes his head and says, “Don’t ever do that again,” and the Lone Ranger looks at him sheepishly, embarrassed. That seems to be the attitude of the filmmakers as well. They are ashamed of the optimistic and uncomplicated heroism of the Lone Ranger, so they had to strip the character down and “reinvent” him, and in doing so, they seem to have had no idea what defined the character in the first place. If you’re seriously that embarrassed, then don’t do it. I don’t need a movie that deconstructs the character as if they’re miserable to be making the film, and I’m not sure what audience they thought they were serving.
I do know that parents, who trust that Disney logo more than almost any other studio’s signature, are going to be shocked by just how unpleasant and violent the film is, and I would encourage them to avoid it this weekend. If the filmmakers wanted to do the “Unforgiven” of Lone Ranger films, that’s fine, but smuggling R-rated content into a PG-13 film that is being pushed on family audiences strikes me as both dishonest and distasteful. They’ve been deconstructing Westerns for decades, and there are dozens of movies I would recommend that pull off everything this movie fumbles so desperately. This is a massive misfire, and it saddens me to see so much talent thrown at something as hollow and ugly as this.
Someone needs to drag this thing out behind the barn and put a silver bullet in its brain. It’s the only kindness this movie deserves.
“The Lone Ranger” slouches into theaters this week.