Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why All the Hate? -- Reflections on "The Lone Ranger" (2013)


I don’t get all the hate for The Lone Ranger. Currently it is at 22% on Rotten Tomatoes, 37/100 on Metacritic, and it seems that critics have been taking special care in crafting their vitriol against the film. Here are a few of the gems:

At one point in the movie, The Lone Ranger is dragged through manure, which begs for comment. But it's self-explanatory.” – Tony Macklin 
“I mean, no wonder Depp's in disguise. No wonder Hammer wears a mask. Wouldn't you?” – Stephen Whitty 
 “Whoever decided to revive The Lone Ranger would normally not be consulted for bright ideas again at any time in the near future.” – Kurt Loder 
 “This film is so bloated, so tone deaf, so seemingly edited with a Cusinart, that you'll feel you've been scalped more than once by the time you view a wrinkled Tonto walking off into the horizon step by step as the unending credits steamroll over him.” – Brandon Judell 
 “Except for the dynamite finale, The Lone Ranger feels like a long, slow ride to the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump.” – Joe Williams 
 The Lone Ranger is too often as vast and empty as Utah's Monument Valley. Only the film's wide stretches aren't awe-inspiring so much as much as tiring.” – Lisa Kennedy 
 And my personal favorite: “I hate The Lone Ranger as much as The Lone Ranger hates The Lone Ranger.” – Devin Faraci

Even before the film’s release date, it seemed as if critics wanted this movie to fail. Early press on the production was usually negative, and much was made of Johnny Depp’s questionable costuming as Tonto. The trailers invited waves of harsh criticism across the Twitterverse as critics – myself included – gleefully attacked the tone-deaf teasers.

Having seen the movie now, I can honestly say that The Lone Ranger doesn’t suck as bad as I thought it would. I expected something devastatingly awful, like Howard the Duck bad. Instead, I got a well-crafted visual exercise that felt like it had some identity confusion. One moment it wants to be a classical hero tale; then it’s a buddy movie, a traditional western, a love story, a comedy, and/or a destruction-centered action flick. The homage to several of cinema’s greatest westerns – like The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Unforgiven, and even a non-western like The General – only seemed to add to its schizophrenia, as each of those films had different tones, attitudes, and perspectives on the old west.

The film tries to tell the story of John Reid (Armie Hammer), a big city lawyer who returns to his Texas roots to serve as town constable. He becomes involved in a Texas Ranger manhunt for the notorious Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). After the manhunt goes wrong and an ambush kills all of the Rangers, including Reid’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), John joins forces with a wandering Comanche weirdo named Tonto (Johnny Depp) and together they seek revenge against the outlaws. There are other subplots involving a madam with a prosthetic leg (Helena Bonham Carter), the wife – and love interest – of John’s brother, and an opportunistic businessman named Cole (Tom Wilkinson), but they mostly stay in the background until the main plot needs them to keep its engine chugging along.

As a narrative, The Lone Ranger tries to be everything to everyone it seems, but much like last year’s John Carter, forgets to do the important things, like provide understandable and relatable characters. Our heroes, John Reid and Tonto, are too buffoonish, often behaving foolishly until circumstance or coincidence provides an opportunity for success. They have their motivations, but the film does a pretty poor job establishing the motivations early enough to drive the stakes of the action. And sometimes the motivation, such as Reid’s love for his brother’s wife, is creepy.

Tonto is supposed to be our point of entry to the story, since this is a Johnny Depp blockbuster. He is immediately established as a weird Indian, feeding the dead crow he wears on his head and constantly bugging his eyes out like Stefan Fettchit; he’s also pretty dumb, too, consistently making choices that seem counterintuitive to his mission. By the time Tonto’s backstory is revealed, much as John Carter’s was, it’s too late in the film to reverse any of the discomfort the film had already created for the character. Depp’s performance does nothing but alienate the character further from the audience, especially during the framing sequences in which an old man Tonto seems to pantomime his story to a little kid at a carnival sideshow. He often plays the scenes with his back turned to the camera, or he acts out a behavior directly related to what Tonto is doing in the flashback.

Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring, Rango) is a gifted director with a keen understanding for how to construct action sequences. The action sequences in The Lone Ranger are top notch – clever, eye catching set pieces that are quite exhilarating at times because of the movement and editing. But since there’s nothing really at work under the hood in terms of character and storytelling, the action seems to exist in this film for the sake of providing action. While this disappointed me, it by no means distinguishes The Lone Ranger as any worse than Star Trek Into Darkness or Man of Steel or even Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

The Lone Ranger pretty much typifies the most annoying attributes of the modern blockbuster – overlong, predictable hero’s journey narrative, too many complicated subplots, and a penchant for taking genre material way more seriously than probably intended by the source material. Because of this, I truly can’t understand the hate. Is it because critics are tired of Johnny Depp playing the same oddball characters over and again? Or does it have to do with the fact that the movie cost $250 million Disney dollars? Or is it due to the movie’s cavalier attitude towards Native American culture, and its irresponsible perpetuation of the “Noble Savage” motif seen in tons of westerns over the years? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s just the critical version of mob mentality.

All I can say is that while The Lone Ranger is a definite turd, it’s not the slimiest one in the bowl.

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