For me, The Lone Ranger was the most puzzling movie of 2013. Yes, even more so than Iron Man 3 and G.I. Joe Retaliation. Ever since I watched it the first time, I’ve been trying to sort out what I think about it, but so far I haven’t really gotten anywhere. Today I find myself with time on my hands, so I am going to try something different. I am going to put the movie on and attempt to write about it as I am watching it. This will be a new experience for me, since with every other post I’ve done I haven’t written about the movie until after I was done watching it.
All right, here goes nothing.
First observation: the frame story. For some reason I can’t quite comprehend, the movie starts in San Francisco in the 1930’s, at some kind of fair or exhibition, where a little kid in a familiar-looking white hat and black mask combo walks into a Wild West exhibit. He looks around a bit and comes to a stop at a display of a very old-looking Native American man. A plaque reads “The Noble Savage in his Natural Habitat.” The boy thinks it’s a statue, until it looks at him. The old man seems struck by the boy’s appearance, and mutters “Kemo Sabe?”
Most kids and their parents watching the movie in the theater at this point are probably wondering what movie they wandered into.
The kid takes off his mask and asks, “Who did you think I was anyway?” The old man looks away from him and mutters, “Never take off mask.” The movie then cuts to a flashback of Tonto and The Lone Ranger robbing a bank. The boy is confused by this, since he didn’t The Lone Ranger and Tonto went in for that sort of thing. “There comes a time, kemo sabe, when all good men must wear mask.”
Then the movie cuts to Colby, Texas, in 1869, where the Transcontinental Railroad is being built (although I’m pretty sure the Transcontinental Railroad didn’t go through Texas at all). So most of the movie is seen in flashbacks as Tonto tells his story to the boy.
Back in 1869, notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish is being brought to Colby to be hanged, and wouldn’t you know that our mild-mannered hero John Reid is on the same train with him, as is Tonto. Tonto and Cavendish are both prisoners. It’s clear that Butch’s men are going to break him out. In the prison car, Butch is twisting a nail out of a floorboard, and there’s a close-up shot of his torn and bloody fingers, which is a disturbing image for a Disney movie. He removes the floorboard and takes out a gun, and promptly kills the two men guarding him and Tonto.
Butch’s men board the train and kill several passengers. So at least five people in this Disney movie have already been killed by outlaws. Tonto and John end up chained together and there’s a genuinely disturbing shot of some of Butch’s men terrorizing the passengers, forcing them to sing songs while guns are being pointed in their faces. One woman tries to take a ring off her finger and screams “I can’t get it off!” while a creepy-looking guy waves a gun in her face. It reminds me of the upsetting scene near the end of Dirty Harry where the killer forces a school bus full of hostage children to sing songs while he waves a gun around.
There are some funny sight gags involving John and Tonto being chained together on the top of a train and inadvertently taking out a few bad guys. The train ends up crashing spectacularly and I have to admit that the special effects are impressive.
Okay, I realized something. I’m getting too caught up in plot summary, so I’m going to try to curtail that a bit or this post is going to be a thousand years long. I described the first part in so much detail partly because I wanted to try to get across the really weird first impressions you get from this movie.
Did I mention Tonto has a dead bird on his head and gives it food throughout the movie? But the bird is, obviously, dead, so he just ends up sprinkling bird seeds or peanuts or whatever down the front of his face.
So John heads out with his brother Dan the heroic Texas Ranger and a group of other Rangers to try to track down Butch, but a member of their group betrays them and they all get killed except for John.
So just in case anyone was wondering, this Disney movie has a body count in the double digits and we’re less than forty minutes in.
Did I also mention that Butch Cavendish shoots John and Dan and then cuts out Dan’s heart and eats it in front of John? And that this happens in a Disney movie? Sure, it isn’t seen explicitly (you see the reflection in John’s eyes as he watches), but the fact remains that Dan the heroic Texas Ranger ends up coughing up blood before Butch cuts out his heart and eats it in front of the dying man’s brother. Butch’s blood-drenched hands and face are clearly shown, as is Dan’s bloody corpse.
I mean, holy shit. Bloodiest Disney movie ever? Um, yes.
And then the movie cuts back to old Tonto talking to the little kid! The kid is confused because he thought Dan was the Lone Ranger, not John. Then the movie cuts back to Tonto burying the dead Rangers, except for John who is somehow not dead despite having been shot in the chest. THEN, this white horse shows up and starts pawing around John, despite Tonto’s protests that the so-called “Spirit Horse” bring Dan back to life instead of John. So THEN, Tonto ties John to the back of the horse and starts dragging him along behind them, AND THE MOVIE ACTUALLY STOPS TO LET THE HORSE POOP, AND THEN JOHN’S HEAD GETS DRAGGED THROUGH THE POOP. And did I mention that Butch Cavendish was shown peeing in a bucket earlier?
Less than an hour into this DISNEY MOVIE and we’ve got a bizarre frame story, an unreliable narrator, a double-digit body count, a gruesome act of cannibalism, some quasi-spiritualism, and multiple bodily functions. Not to mention Tonto’s bizarre appearance.
Skipping ahead a bit, John wakes up and he and Tonto end up sitting around a campfire, roasting what appears to be a rabbit. Some other cute little bunnies appear and watch them. Tonto tears off a chunk of meat and tosses it to the bunnies, who SUDDENLY BARE SHARP FANGS AND SCREECH WEIRDLY AND POUNCE ON THE MEAT CHUNK.
Where the HELL did the vampire bunnies come from?!?! All that other stuff was weird, but at least it kind of serves a purpose to the plot, mostly.
Okay, okay, so John and Tonto end up agreeing to hunt down Butch Cavendish. They start by looking for the traitor in Dan’s group of Rangers who sold them out to Cavendish, and the first place they look is in a BROTHEL.
“Are all these women…professionals?” John asks Tonto. And yes, they clearly are. There is more cleavage in this scene than in just about every other movie I saw last year put together. And Helena Bonham Carter plays a one-legged brothel madam with a shotgun hidden in her fake leg! And then there’s something about a cursed rock and John has some weird visions and Tonto doesn’t like cats and runs around with a bird cage on his head and the white horse drinks a bottle of booze and what the hell is even happening.
Dear God, this movie is all over the place. I’m trying to keep up with watching and writing at the same time, but it’s not easy. I’ve had to pause a few times to catch up. And also, a guy in this movie gets freaking SCALPED.
I know you’re trying to process all this. So am I.
Good luck processing this next bit: later, John and Tonto question a CROSS-DRESSING bad guy, and when the bad guy runs away and rejoins his fellow bad guys, he says, and I swear to God I am not making this up, “They was goin’ to violate me with a duck foot!”
Yes. Rape with a foreign object is implied in this DISNEY MOVIE. I feel that ellipses are the only way to express my feelings on this.
I don’t know who the makers of this film thought they were making it for. The appearances of two of the main characters are too frightening and there is too much dark violence for kids, and the movie is so pervasively weird that it’s hard to imagine it appealing to many adults on anything other than nostalgia.
And this movie cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 225 to 250 million dollars to make, not to mention another $150 million spent on marketing. I honestly can’t fathom why Disney acted all surprised when this movie tanked at the box office. It couldn’t be more all over the place.
The rest of the plot has to do with an evil railroad baron’s scheme to extend the railroad through Comanche territory, or something. In the process, an entire Comanche tribe is machine-gunned in one scene, which probably brings the body count pretty close to triple digits.
This movie is a giant bundle of contradictions. There’s a lot of dark, bloody violence and genuinely disturbing imagery, a very suggestive brothel scene, and the plot is too complicated for little kids to understand. There’s also quite a bit of drinking and quite a few uses of “damn” and “hell,” which is pretty mild language but still a bit much for a kids movie. And with a running time of 149 minutes, it’s also punishingly long.
And YET, there are things to like. The movie was directed by Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, and he has a hell of an eye for striking visuals. The scenery in the film is pretty stunning, and the special effects, costumes, sets, and the like all look great, and the climactic train chase is suitably epic.
The movie is also pretty well-acted. Tom Wilkinson and William Fichtner are great as the villains, and Armie Hammer is appealingly stoic and likable as the title character, although he gets second billing to Johnny Depp, who plays Tonto.
Depp’s performance is a bit of a mystery, however. He has this bemused expression on his face for much of the film, though in yet another of this movie’s many contradictions, it’s hard to tell if he’s acting or simply, I don’t know, reacting. His character is certainly memorable, despite his strangeness.
And the REALLY weird thing is that you can’t trust anything in the movie, because old Tonto is an unreliable narrator. The viewer spends the entire movie doubting Tonto’s sanity, and therefore you cannot trust anything he tells the young boy in the frame story. Who knows how much, if any, of Tonto’s story is true? How much of it is he just making up? How much of it has become warped in his mind?
And for little kids who go to see Disney movies, this sort of storytelling is far too sophisticated for them to understand. One wonders why they even bothered to include the frame story at all.
Is this movie an action movie? Black comedy? Drama? Horror? Family? I have no idea, and clearly the movie doesn’t either.
And all of this, my friends, leads us to the most puzzling thing of all.
I didn’t hate this movie.
In fact, I kind of liked it.
Why? I don’t know why.
Maybe it’s the sheer audacity of the whole thing. That sense of, “Screw it, let’s just throw all this stuff at the wall and see what sticks.” The movie really is completely unlike any other movie I saw in 2013, and that certainly makes it more memorable than any other random six-pack of generic blockbusters.
You could call it a noble failure, perhaps. I dunno. Call it what you will. It’s worth a watch, just to experience the weirdness for yourself. And it’s hard not to feel a stir of emotion when the classic William Tell Overture starts playing at the beginning of the climactic train chase. And also at the end of the film, when old Tonto tells the young boy to decide for himself how much of the story is true, there’s a certain wistful quality that I like. I don’t think this movie will necessarily be remembered as a misunderstood classic or anything, but I could see it developing a cult following.
I’ll leave you with one final line from this messed-up masterpiece:
The Lone Ranger: “Hi-Yo Silver, Away!”
Tonto: “Don’t ever do that again.”