Various critics have talked about why last year’s The Lone Ranger deserved to do better, box-office-wise, than it did, about its interest in how events are turned into history and its visual delights, which are, I should think, inarguable. Thus far, I haven’t come across anyone talking about another major interest of the film, one that gives it depth, and works to tie a careering plot together: identity. Maybe “character” would be a better way to put it, because I don’t mean “identity” in the sense of stock Western characters. In his November 2013 essay, “Out of Balance: Gore Verbinski and the Lone Ranger” (published on MUBI’s Notebook), Ryland Walker Knight sets up The Lone Ranger next to Tarantino’s Django Unchained. They are both Westerns interested in what stories get told about history, and “both films” he argues, “are meticulously aesthetic and political visions, employing a variety of forms/tropes (of artifice) to critique the myth of America.” But another similarity between the two is the question of character—a theme explicitly raised at the end of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, when The Wolf points out, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” In fact, character is a theme that runs through both directors’ oeuvres. Knight argues for The Lone Ranger as a more protean, flexible film than Django Unchained, and I think this is also true of the way each director approaches the question of character more generally. Yet, because Verbinski’s films are so big and the action sequences are so beautifully presented, most interested folks don’t spend much time talking about what else his films might have in common.
Verbinski’s characters—his worlds—are loopy and sometimes it seems as though the stuffing is coming out at the seams, whereas Tarantino’s are much more structured, an aesthetic as much as a philosophical difference.
Verbinski’s characters teeter on the edge of our world, sometimes falling off into bizarre other-worlds where there exist things like the fanged feral rabbits in The Lone Ranger, or, really, whole swathes of the fourth Pirates film. The first Pirates is also very much about character—Johnny Depp’s splendid Captain Jack Sparrow spends half the film announcing and reminding folks that he is “Captain Jack Sparrow”—and some of the movie’s suspense is meant to come from the question of whether Jack Sparrow is a good guy or a bad guy. It’s a popular subject of conversation among his companions throughout the series.
There are more obvious similarities between The Lone Ranger and Verbinski’s animated film, Rango (2011)—both are self-conscious Westerns starring (in one way or another) Johnny Depp. But a look at the opening scenes in each reveals a much deeper connection. In The Lone Ranger, a boy dressed as the Ranger (Mason Cook) walks into a fair exhibit called “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,” a darkish hall of dioramas like the ones natural history museums used to have. (Do they still have those? It’s been awhile since I was in a natural history museum.) As lots of folks have noted, this opening raises all sorts of questions about history as a story we construct. The boy stops in front of an aged Tonto (Depp), who is an exhibit titled (what else?) “The Noble Savage.” When Tonto sees the boy’s costume, he suddenly speaks, apparently taking the boy for the Lone Ranger himself. During this first exchange, the boy asks Tonto, “Who did you think I was, anyways?”—a question that hovers over the characters of both John Reid/the Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto for most of the film. Moving to question to the audience (who does the teller of the tale think the audience is?) is a fascinating reversal.
Tonto is a character introduced to us in an artificial box, the diorama, in which he’s been put by the creators of the exhibit, and this is the film’s frame story, literally framed. Tonto tells the boy a story about how John Reid became the Lone Ranger—the main narrative. The boy interrupts occasionally with objections and questions, at one point asking, “How’d you get out of jail anyway?” The shot is no longer a head-on shot of the boy or of Tonto. It is a long shot from down the hall of the boy standing in front of the exhibit. As if in response to the boy’s question, Tonto’s head peeks around the edge of the exhibit and peers down the hall towards the camera—as though peering out from the prison cell of the wrong narrative.
Now take a look at the opening of Rango. There isn’t exactly a frame narrative but there is a frame, provided by a chorus of mariachi-playing owls, who introduce “a hero who has yet to enter his own story.” Indeed, the chameleon Rango is busy in another story (the wrong story?). Rango is putting on a play about a suicidal princess (whom he is, of course, going to rescue) inside his terrarium…which looks an awful lot like a much brighter and more colorful natural history diorama. Rango is having an argument with one of his inanimate co-stars, Victor, a fake miniature palm tree.
“What’s that, Victor? My character is ‘undefined’? That’s absurd! I know who I am. I’m…the guy, the protagonist, the hero!” Rango and his friends, who also include a headless Barbie and a wind-up goldfish, are traveling in the back seat of a station wagon, the pet of a family in the midst of a move. “That’s it! Conflict! Victor, you were right. I have been undefined. People! I’ve had an epiphany! The hero cannot exist in a vacuum. What our story needs is an ironic, unexpected event that will propel our hero into conflict!” And of course there is immediately a car accident that propels the terrarium out of the car, breaking its glass on the pavement. Rango is a character who is more consciously in search of an identity than either Tonto or John Reid, but the set-ups are remarkably similar
In an interview with IndieWire, Verbinski listed the top ten films that influenced Rango. “Identity narratives” was what was important about two of his choices, “Flowers for Algernon” and Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” but it’s certainly an important theme in other films on his list, like Being There. Elaborating, he said, “’The Passenger’ has a little more of pretending and the puppet that can’t escape the strings. People create avatars but there’s blowback; you aren’t completely liberated by assuming that alternate identity.” This is true not only of Rango, who in assuming an alternate identity also takes on responsibility for the town’s survival, but of John Reid, who in creating (somewhat by accident) the character of the Lone Ranger, can no longer be himself and can’t stay with the woman he loves. Neither can Reid continue to assume, when he happens upon an Indian and a white man in chains on their way to jail, that both men are in fact guilty of a crime. The Lone Ranger will never say, as Reid does before his transformation, “Finally, someone who will listen to reason!” and be referring to the United States Army. Taking on these new identities changes who the characters “actually” are.
As much as there is uncertainty in The Lone Ranger about who Tonto is—both in the frame story and in the Ranger narrative—and whether or not he’s actually bonkers, there is uncertainty about whether or not Reid is a warrior, whether or not he has the makings of a hero. Is Reid a “hero who has not yet entered his own story”? Tonto has a hard time believing in this version of Reid, even when the Spirit Horse indicates Reid as the person who will help Tonto have his revenge. He tells Reid that “Kemosabe” means “wrong brother,” as he was hoping for John’s more competent brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to come back from the spirit world and fight.
Among the film’s abundant visual pleasures are the many nods to other films, some of them other Depp and/or Verbinski movies. Here are a few of less-oft mentioned of them: Towards the beginning of The Lone Ranger, we see Cole trying to make nice with Rebecca Reid (the shamefully underused Ruth Wilson), wife of current sheriff Dan, and their son. Cole gives the boy an optical illusion toy, a thaumatrope with the picture of a bird on one side and a cage on the other. By quickly rolling the handle back and forth between one’s hands, it looks like the bird is
actually in the cage. The toy is borrowed from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), starring Depp—his character, Ichabod Crane, is the one who plays with it. The scene of Dan Reid and his deputies wait for Cavendish to arrive at the train station is reminiscent of the (much longer) opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West (as is the scene of the raid on the Reid homestead). There are a variety of allusions to Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant Western, Dead Man, also starring you-know-who. There is a charming and affectionate nod to early filmmaking genius Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938) in the bordello, on the stage of which a group of young women with enormous butterfly wings dance a ballet. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTYmydDXln8&w=420&h=315]And in the masterfully staged train chase, Tonto adapts a trick from Pirates of the Caribbean’s Barbossa, itself adapted from a couple of Buster Keaton gags, using a ladder to move between trains running on parallel tracks. There’s also a cross-dressing outlaw whose fashion sense resembles that of Pirates’ cross-dressing pirate.
All of which is to say, if you didn’t see The Lone Ranger when it came out, or you saw it and thought, “Piffle,” give it (another) look.
Below are some thoughtful reviews from the film’s release.