'The Lone Ranger' Is Lost In The Desert Between Tradition And Subversion

Why is a film in which a magic horse eats scorpions off Armie Hammer's face so insufferably fractured and dull? Now that I've got your attention, consider the unfortunate fate of a film, one eager to subvert Western tradition, which becomes deeply lost in the wilderness between the arthouse and multiplex.

The Lone Ranger, masterminded by the Pirates of the Caribbean team of Gore Verbinski (director) and Jerry Bruckheimer (producer), throws out one weird idea after another — fanged rabbits factor in — almost as distractions for the fact that it wants to batter the very myth of the American west. In all cases, it does so without any significant unifying principle to weave the ideas into a movie of any compelling merit. More interesting to talk about than it is to watch in the moment, The Lone Ranger is still a dud in the end.

With the outcast Native American character Tonto, Verbinski and Bruckheimer give Pirates mainstay Johnny Depp another turn as the leading man who isn't quite the hero. Armie Hammer plays the title role, a lawyer who becomes a masked avenger after a cannibalistic outlaw sinks his choppers into some of the Ranger's family. (Said outlaw is played with standout verve by William Fichtner.) The same guy wiped out most of Tonto's clan, so he and the newly masked Ranger set off in search of vengeance, or to stop the march of progress, or something.

There are a few big problems with The Lone Ranger. The ratio between ideas and cohesion is one. Another is an inability to find footing with major characters and their true roles in this particular story. Tonto, played by Depp as a mystic-minded Jack Sparrow in whiteface, is the film's motivator and sage, also the (would-be) comic relief and a tool to break down some western tropes.

Tonto constantly dribbles seed into the mouth of the bird he wears as a hat, and talks up the Ranger as a "spirit walker" — a warrior who can't be killed. All his weirdness masks a few deeper character traits that are hinted at, but rarely explored. How does a big, "fun" movie have time for real sadness? How can it have a place for a Tonto intent on tearing down the idea of Western mythology as portrayed in movies?

The Ranger, either as an archetype to be undermined or a hero to be built, feels like the guy the film wants to break up with but can't. Hammer is a winning presence with great physical ability, but he's overwhelmed by the chaos around him. Stuck on the margins, the Ranger is a total greenhorn hero, barely active, unable to perceive basic truths, and generally ineffectual. On paper that's a good evisceration of the classic western hero, which is pretty clearly the idea. On film, he's mostly a floundering fool, but not one that will make many viewers question the nature of the on-screen cowboy.

Verbinski composes images with an eye focused on particular Westerns such as El TopoThe Wild BunchOnce Upon a Time in the West, and Depp's own Dead Man. Those touchstones aren't casual. They're all films that twisted, tweaked, or reversed long-established genre rules. Here, Verbinski engineers his western interests with ideas that undercut all the stuff of "traditional" westerns. For example, Tonto is introduced as an aged specimen in a carnival sideshow, displayed as "the noble savage." He narrates the story — unreliably — to a kid dressed as the ranger. Tonto's digressions and winks, together with his own low status, suggest that any history written by the winners is one to be viewed skeptically.

(Another film given a nod is Verbinksi's own Rango, which did a better job of playing with western ideas in a playful framework. It does quirky, personal, and subversive far better than The Lone Ranger.)

The unreliable narrator is a tricky device, and one that never has a prayer because the film itself is even more unreliable than Tonto. One after the other, story elements and scenario ideas become dead ends. For one, Tonto's subversion is incomplete, with the idea pushed forward in dribs and drabs.

Also ungainly are flashes of cannibalism (a really intriguing idea with no room to grow) and the brief appearance from Helena Bonham Carter as a woman who lost part of her anatomy to an unusual fate. Add in the aforementioned rabbits and scorpions, too. Tonto introduces the idea that nature is out of balance, seemingly thanks to the filthy, greedy sort of progress represented by Fichtner's character and a train magnate played by Tom Wilkinson. A traditional resolution would find (a) balance restored, or (b) an understanding of the imbalance, which the heroes set off to address in the sequel. In subversive mode, the forces of order and progress would be marked as the root of the imbalance. The Lone Ranger nods toward the subversive mode but ends up lost between the extremes, servicing neither.

As you'd expect from a $200m Disney movie, the action is slightly more coherent than the genre criticism. It's exaggerated and huge — like kids playing with the biggest toy trains, running them in races, crashing the cars, flipping them over. There isn't a single nod towards the plausible, and that's OK. That even goes with the underlying idea that most of what we saw in old westerns was nonsense. In a film where so few elements really gel, that the over the top action nearly fits in with the idea of a spirit horse and the fabricated nature of the Old West is a minor achievement.

But put the action up against some of the more darkly realistic sequences and it still feels weird. There's a point where US soldiers commit an atrocity — one which reflects real events — after which cheering on a hyper-digital chase scene feels pretty damn pointless. Who cares if the villain gets his comeuppance? All those people are still dead, and at the hands of our boys. (A pullquote: The Lone Ranger is the Least Patriotic Movie of 2013!")

For all the attempts to question the established Old West myth, and to cast an unblinking eye on the ravages of a vile, greedy version of progress, The Lone Ranger plays rather like what it seeks to criticize. It's big and expensive and in the service of a company machine rather than any individual. It doesn't rebuild the old Lone Ranger hero, or quite tear him down. It only lets him wither. Verbinski & Co. have big ideas, but they rarely seem to be in control; they're just nudging a runaway train.

4 out of 10