Movie: The Lone Ranger
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Release date: July 3, 2013
U.S. box office: $89.3 million (40th best of 2013)
Worldwide box office: $260.5 million (31st best of 2013)
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 100 days
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 30 percent
Metacritic score: 37
Letterboxd average grade: 2.75/5
“There are serious miscalculations throughout The Lone Ranger, starting with the casting: [Armie] Hammer plays the masked hero with the dim enthusiasm (or enthusiastic dimness) of Brendan Fraser at his most stilted; [Johnny] Depp’s Tonto is an ethnically dubious repurposing of his popular Jack Sparrow character, more stoic but equally eccentric; and Helena Bonham Carter, as a brothel madam with a lethal fake leg, does little but add to the cartoon grotesquerie. Verbinski litters the film with references to old TV Western serials, John Ford’s Monument Valley, and especially Once Upon A Time In The West, which it quotes both in the score and in a subplot about the railroads bringing order to the Wild West. But nods to the classics serve mostly to underline how little this film abides by their tone and traditions.” —Scott Tobias
“Though it lacks the sustained manic energy of Rango or Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Lone Ranger is crammed with enough fun matter—rollercoaster train chases, fourth-wall gags—to compensate; the slower scenes are at least interesting to look at, thanks to Verbinski’s detail-packed compositions. Hammer’s performance—always game, never mugging—certainly helps; his likable but buffoonish Lone Ranger is an essential part of the movie’s irreverent tone.” —Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
“It’s also good to see a big Hollywood feature shoot in Monument Valley for the first time in years, though it’s odd to be told the location has been moved to Texas. And as satisfying as it is to hear snatches of Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’ and hear a stirring ‘Hi-Yo, Silver,’ it’s just as sad to report that although this Lone Ranger is good at helping strangers, rescuing his own film is beyond even him.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“The undifferentiated mess that follows strains the capacity to care. There are too many scenes involving the dead brother’s dull wife (Ruth Wilson) and their young son (Bryant Prince) holed up with the mean, old train tycoon (Tom Wilkinson). Every once in a while I’ll be at a movie and find myself reaching for the remote. I don’t know whether my intent is to change the channel or fast-forward or hit stop, but for long stretches of this movie I felt the urge to reach. More than once I looked over at the friend I brought to make sure she was still alive.” —Wesley Morris, Grantland
The pre-release discussion around The Lone Ranger focused on the same thing as The Lone Ranger’s plot: an enormous pile of money. Before the film became infamous as a flop—one so extreme, it reportedly forced Disney to take a $190 million write-down last summer—it was notorious as an out-of-control production that was shut down weeks before shooting was originally scheduled to begin in fall 2011, over fears about its enormous budget. At that point, The Lone Ranger was expected to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $260 million. When production resumed two months later, that number had dropped to $215 million.
Disney’s attempts to minimize its risk only added to the media scrutiny, and the shutdowns and repeated delays fed into the perception that The Lone Ranger was a doomed project. But while many members of the press were obsessed with The Lone Ranger’s budget, few noticed the film’s suspicious subtext about money, power, and possibly even the Hollywood system that created it. Its entire narrative—about an elaborate scheme to drive a wedge between Native Americans and settlers in 1860s Texas in order to claim land for a transcontinental railroad—is a deeply ambivalent take on big business, technology, and expansionism that can also be read as a deeply ambivalent take on modern blockbuster filmmaking, which sits at a unique intersection of big business, technology, and economic expansionism.
The ultimate villain of the film is a railroad man named Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the secret engineer of the conflict between the Texans and the Comanche. By tricking the settlers into believing the Native Americans have broken a treaty, Cole can disregard the treaty himself, and claim the natives’ land for his railroad. (It’s almost the exact same plan used by Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles.) Cole’s dreams go beyond simple monetary wealth—he already has $65 million in raw silver—to connecting the entire country under one transportation system. “The single most important enterprise under God,” Cole says in his first scene, is “the unification of this great country of ours by iron rail.” At the dedication ceremony for the new railroad, a banner reads “A Nation United.” “Whoever controls this,” Cole says later, referring to the train, “controls the future.”
Cole’s line anticipates a crucial one in this summer’s Snowpiercer—“We control the engine, we control the world”—another action-adventure about a life-or-death struggle on a train that serves as the film’s central location and central metaphor. In the case of The Lone Ranger, the train represents the future Cole envisions, one connected not just nationally, but globally, linked via enormous networks of transportation and communication—including movies like The Lone Ranger, which eventually played in more than 50 countries around the world.
Cole calls this future “progress,” but director Gore Verbinski seems skeptical, and he repeatedly focuses on the cost of that progress, particularly in human lives. And if his train represents globalization, it’s not hard to draw a comparison between Cole’s willingness to muscle out—or completely destroy—the indigenous people who stand in his way and the modern Hollywood business model of market saturation, which has little concern for the national cinemas or independents it crowds out of multiplexes. Cole’s vision leaves no room for outsiders or misfits. In cinematic terms, it’s the unification of this great world of ours by big, dumb cinema.
Though The Lone Ranger is undeniably a product of that vision, its heroes are two of the outsiders and misfits it imperils. They each represent forms of moviemaking that are all but extinct in modern blockbuster culture. The Lone Ranger, as played by Armie Hammer, is a classic Western hero; a principled lawyer who reluctantly becomes a vigilante. As his sidekick Tonto, Johnny Depp mugs and blunders like a silent-movie comedian. Their adventure together is framed by scenes featuring Tonto as an old man in 1930s San Francisco; he recounts his story to a young boy from behind a wall of glass. It’s as if he’s a living fossil.
The metaphor isn’t flawless—and neither is The Lone Ranger—but it’s compelling nonetheless. The Lone Ranger and Tonto eventually stop Cole and destroy a big part of his railroad. But as the evil mastermind says shortly before his defeat, “There’s no stopping this train”—and progress continues on without him. Back in 1930s San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is under construction, and all that remains from the Wild West of the Lone Ranger and Tonto—and the less homogenous culture they typify—are stories told to children. If The Lone Ranger’s failure at the box office slowed down the Disney monolith, it was nothing more than a brief stumble for one of the world’s largest communication corporations. A few months later, the studio’s Frozen became the fifth-highest-grossing movie in history, and the company promoted its worldwide success with a YouTube video highlighting its theme song, “Let It Go,” sung in 25 different languages, Cole’s destiny manifest in the world of entertainment.
The Lone Ranger’s subtext might warn against the dangers of monolithic culture, but its text is mostly about the pleasures of cinematic action on the biggest possible scale. (This, admittedly, sort of undercuts the argument of said subtext.) The film has two lavish setpieces on speeding locomotives. Both are impressive, but the grand finale, where the Lone Ranger and Tonto battle Cole and his minions across two parallel runaway trains, is the real showstopper. Verbinski combined footage of real trains with practical locations and seamless blue-screen effects to create one of the most exciting and inventive action sequences in recent blockbuster history. It’s also, in keeping with The Lone Ranger’s themes, laden with homages to classic stunt work and silent comedy—as when the Lone Ranger rides his horse through a passenger car in the midst of a shootout, or Tonto climbs from one train to the other on a rickety ladder, Buster Keaton-style.
Much of The Lone Ranger is a similarly precarious balancing act: Between broad comedy and violent action, between telling an origin story and deconstructing American myths, and between embracing stereotypes and shattering them. The whiplash between tones and styles is frequently jarring, but occasionally exhilarating. Each scene is almost impossible to predict from the one that preceded it, and the film is full of surprises. In one sequence, vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) attacks a posse that includes Hammer’s John Reid, then cuts out and eats the heart of his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale). In the next, Depp’s Tonto is wandering through the corpses of Cavendish’s victims, making unfair “trades” for their valuables (he exchanges one man’s photograph collection for an empty bag of peanuts, for example) and performing a two-man comedy routine with a white horse.
After the horse “chooses” John Reid to become the Lone Ranger, Tonto hauls his carcass through the desert. When the magical horse takes a magical dump, Reid gets pulled directly through the turds for cheap laughs—just minutes after his beloved brother was savagely murdered (and eaten!) in front of him. Whether he’s literally or metaphorically getting dragged through shit, Hammer acquits himself admirably in a difficult role. He’s a solid straight man for Depp, a likable goof in his own slapstick scenes, and a credible hero once Reid puts on the Lone Ranger’s mask and resolves to bring Cole to justice. If The Lone Ranger feels consistent at all, it’s thanks to Hammer’s versatility.
Some of these wild fluctuations of tone can be attributed to the fact that the Lone Ranger’s origin story is being told by a decrepit Tonto to a child in 1933 San Francisco. In the heart-eating/poop-dragging sequence, the peanut bag is a subtle but important clue in that regard: It’s the exact same bag the kid listening to Tonto’s story in 1933 hands him at the start of the film. Whether or not audiences find those sudden shifts satisfying, the peanut bag’s magical teleportation from the San Francisco of the “present” to the Texas of the “past” is a clear indication that the abrupt tonal reversals in Tonto’s story are both deliberate and not to be taken completely at face value.
The fact that Arizona and Utah’s Monument Valley has been inexplicably transported to the outskirts of Colby, Texas is another. Those iconic plateaus became a signature of John Ford’s films—and eventually of the entire Western genre—and though they make zero geographic sense in The Lone Ranger, they add another effective layer to its tale of the vanishing frontier. The distinctive peaks can often be seen behind Cole’s train, which always seems to be traveling away from Monument Valley. Again, geographically, that’s impossible; if Cole is pushing West, then his train would be heading toward Monument Valley from Texas. It only makes sense on a symbolic level; Cole’s railroad is bringing people out of the West of legend and into his much-vaunted “future.”
Disney was only willing to bet so much money on this absurdly expensive production because it came from the same creative team—Verbinski, Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio—as the Pirates Of The Caribbean series. Those movies were box-office longshots, too: based on a popular but narrative-less Disneyland ride, set in another unfashionable genre (the pirate movie), and with a star who, at the time of The Curse Of The Black Pearl, had just one $100 million hit in the previous decade (1999’s Sleepy Hollow). In spite of all that, Pirates became one of Disney’s most lucrative franchises ever. Bruckheimer’s production company logo is a bolt of lightning striking a tree; in this case, Disney was praying that lightning would strike twice.
In spite of The Lone Ranger’s many idiosyncratic flourishes, it still hews fairly closely to the template established by The Curse Of The Black Pearl. Depp plays an eccentric loner with an unusual accent and outlandish costume, who’s joined on a quest for revenge by a naïve, youthful hero. Depp’s maverick and his milquetoast partner hate each other at first, then slowly come to appreciate each other’s point of view. As they journey through uncharted territory, they must contend with enemies on both sides of the law: military men who want to capture them, and mercenaries who want to kill them. Pirates, like The Lone Ranger, was another unconventional mixture of comedy (Depp’s drunken clowning) and genuine horror (the pirates who turned into skeletons by the light of the moon), but it worked.
There’s no shame in trying to recapture the old Pirates magic; The Lone Ranger just doesn’t do it successfully. Part of that has to do with the villains. Wilkinson’s Cole is dull and unimaginative, and Fichtner’s Cavendish, for all his blustery ickiness, is a one-dimensional brute. Neither has the sinister style or campy joie de vivre of Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa. Barry Pepper is a welcome addition as a pompous Army man who falls under Cole’s sway—and as the equivalent of Pirates’ Commodore Norrington—but he doesn’t appear until 75 minutes into the film, and remains a minimal presence.
The film’s female characters are even more of an afterthought. Dan Reid’s wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) becomes the story’s damsel in distress after her husband’s death, but her backstory with the Lone Ranger—whom she supposedly loved before she married Dan—is a ham-fisted attempt to inject some romance into a story that already has more genres than it can comfortably manage. Helena Bonham Carter’s Red, a madam with one ivory leg (and, naturally, red hair), is impressively designed but similarly superfluous, shoehorned into a couple of scenes to add some PG-13-rated sexuality. Like Pepper’s Captain Fuller, she’s introduced to the film late, contributes little, and vanishes. Both feel like cinematic appendices, vestigial remains of previous iterations of the Lone Ranger screenplay that probably held more crucial roles at one point. None of them are bad per se, but they’re almost completely extraneous in a movie whose 149-minute runtime is already too long.
And then there’s Depp himself. His performance isn’t so much a question of “Does it hold up?” as “Is it hugely offensive to an entire race of people?” Depp has claimed a vague, partial Native American ancestry “somewhere down the line,” but he’s still basically a white guy playing a Comanche—and specifically, a Comanche with peculiar mystical beliefs, a thick accent, and a habit of feeding seed to the dead bird he wears on his head. The film acknowledges the stereotypes it’s trafficking in right from the start—Old Tonto inhabits the “Noble Savage” booth of the Wild West exhibit in 1930s San Francisco—but acknowledging the stereotypes doesn’t automatically excuse them. And it’s a little curious—if not flat-out hypocritical—that Cavendish’s men dressing like Comanches makes them despicable villains, while Depp is supposedly a hilarious, lovable hero for basically doing the exact same thing.
The Lone Ranger’s potential racism is mitigated somewhat by the fact that its true villains are all white men like Cole, Cavendish, and their respective gangs. When natives capture Reid and Tonto, the Comanche are portrayed as smart, sympathetic men who speak fluent English and don’t adhere to Tonto’s theories about “spirit walkers” or supernatural horses. None of them wear animals as fashion accessories, and they certainly don’t call people “Kemosabe.” Tonto’s backstory—his village was slaughtered after he made a bad deal with Cavendish as a boy, after which he became an outcast consumed with revenge—suggests he acts and dresses oddly not because of his Native American heritage, but because he’s played by Johnny Depp, whose whole schtick is characters who act and dress oddly. Whether that satisfactorily explains Depp’s behavior, or his taking the role in the first place, is an open question.
Just days after The Lone Ranger’s première, it was already written off as a bigger and even more disastrous flop than Latham Cole’s railroad. Within hours of its dismal $29.2 million opening weekend, journalists began describing its failure in historical terms. On July 7, BuzzFeed’s Adam B. Vary asked if it was the biggest flop of 2013. Meanwhile, Moviefone tried to uncover why it earned “so little silver,” and a contributor to What Culture wondered whether the film’s failure was a sign that we as a society had lost the ability to have fun at the movies.
By the time The Lone Ranger opened in the U.K. on August 9, 2013, the movie was dead and buried—and unlike its hero, there was no horseshit-related resurrection on its way. Right around the time the Lone Ranger publicity machine was futilely ramping up across the pond, the Arizona Republic’s Bill Goodykoontz published a thorough consideration of “what went wrong” with the film. Interviewing numerous experts on film and digital media, Goodykoontz found several reasons for its failure, from the general lack of cultural interest in Westerns to the audience’s lack of awareness in the Lone Ranger property, to its bloated runtime, to its unusually violent content for a PG-13 movie, to its overall “artistic failure.” “Overblown, lazily plotted, a mishmash of styles and and moods,” Goodykoontz wrote. “It just wasn’t very good.”
Depp and Hammer found someone else to blame for The Lone Ranger’s problems: the critics who panned it. While promoting the film’s U.K. release, Hammer told Yahoo Movies that reviewers were “gunning for our movie since it was shut down,” and that “it was the popular thing when the movie hit rocky terrain… to try and bash it.” Depp largely agreed, claiming that “the reviews were written seven to eight months before we released the film,” or perhaps even before that “when [critics] heard Gore [Verbinski] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and me were going to do The Lone Ranger. They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do.”
There was no vast critical conspiracy against The Lone Ranger. Hammer’s other example of a 2013 summer movie the critics “wanted” to bash, World War Z, received even more negative publicity about its troubled production than The Lone Ranger, and still wound up with a “fresh” Rotten Tomatoes score of 67 percent. But Depp might have been on to something with his last comment. Critics (and audiences) expected a conventional blockbuster from World War Z, and they got one. Everyone—including Disney—expected the same from The Lone Ranger. Instead, they got something significantly weirder. People didn’t reject it because they were out to get The Lone Ranger. They rejected it because it was too strange for their taste.
All of Goodykoontz’s reasons The Lone Ranger failed are also the reasons the film is interesting. Even after slashing $45 million from the budget, Disney was still spending the GDP of a small island nation on a property its core audience of young moviegoers had never heard of, in a genre that was hugely unpopular, starring a guy who spends the entire movie slathered in makeup, with a dead bird on his head. Would you gamble $215 million on that package?
Give Disney this much credit: It did. While Disney and the rest of the major Hollywood studios are routinely criticized for their unwillingness to take chances—particularly on movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars—The Lone Ranger was one enormous gamble after another. Naturally, Disney got criticized for that as well. “The Lone Ranger failed because it wasted money,” read the headline of a typical article, while writers all over the Internet tried to glean “the lessons of The Lone Ranger.” (Those lessons, shorter: “Don’t spend $215 million on a Western about Johnny Depp with a dead bird on his head.”)
But just because The Lone Ranger was a bad investment doesn’t necessarily mean it was also bad filmmaking. True, The Lone Ranger is a mess; it’s way too long, with too many side characters, and Johnny Depp’s performance is problematic at best. But it’s also refreshingly bizarre, and surprisingly intimate for a film of its size. In an era when most summer movies feel focus-grouped to death, The Lone Ranger seems to have bypassed every corporate gatekeeper who could have (and arguably should have) objected to a million different insane things about it. If Disney had cut 30 minutes out of The Lone Ranger, trimming its political subtext and smoothing out its unorthodox sense of humor, it’s possible it could have salvaged a respectable moneymaker—but it would have been a far more boring film than the one we got.
Twenty-seven years and one day before The Lone Ranger opened in theaters, another film debuted to similarly catastrophic box-office numbers. It was called Big Trouble In Little China, and like The Lone Ranger, it was a quirky slice of genre subversion disguised as a thoughtless action movie. Its nominal hero, Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton, is, like Hammer’s Lone Ranger, a bumbling boob who doesn’t realize he’s actually the sidekick in his own story.
Today, Big Trouble In Little China is a cult film revered in many circles, but when it debuted in July 1986, it was an enormous bomb. To anyone who has seen Big Trouble In Little China, this isn’t surprising. The film is goofy, surreal, violent, and unique. It wasn’t designed for mass consumption. The same goes for The Lone Ranger, which has the look of a blockbuster and the soul of a cult film, and seems just as destined for retrospective culthood as it was destined for instant dismissal by the mainstream. It’s the sort of film a lot of people hate and a few people love for the exact same reasons: because it’s offbeat, excessive, and ridiculous, often to its own detriment.
Beneath the superb action and the questionable racial components, The Lone Ranger is about revealing sad truths about America: The way the West wasn’t so much “won” as “taken”; the corrupt underpinnings of the military-industrial complex; the amoral nature of “progress.” By bombing so spectacularly at the box office, The Lone Ranger revealed one more truth: A lot of moviegoers, in spite of their insistence to the contrary, prefer formulaic entertainment. And so this cinematic curio came and went, and the big train kept on rolling.