Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

I have mixed feelings about anti-westerns. Do you know the type of film I'm talking about? The ones that debunk the myths of classical Western movies? The heyday of the anti-western was the early 1970s, when movies like Soldier Blue, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Wild Bunch blew the conventions of the Western into bloodstained gobbets. Some of the anti-Westerns are legitimately great movies, and I'm not even going to argue that point because it's self-evident. But anti-Westerns aren't usually much fun, either. The Wild Bunch is a lot of things, but "fun" ain't one of them. Even satirical anti-Westerns like Little Big Man tend to become bleak in the end. Plus, some of them tend to preach. I dunno, maybe it's not appropriate to make a "fun" western on themes like genocide, capitalist exploitation, and violence as the instrument of Manifest Destiny. But damned if the new version of The Lone Ranger (2013, directed by Gore Verbinski) doesn't try. The Lone Ranger as a character is the very embodiment of Hollywood myths about Western heroes, part Zorro, part Wyatt Earp, all corn, so the fact that the makers of this new film have used him to completely debunk not only Western movies, but American myths about ourselves, is downright subversive. That they've done it as a summer blockbuster is an act of smuggling so brazen that I can't believe they got away with it, especially given that this was made for Disney, of all people.

The core elements of The Lone Ranger story are intact. Attorney John Reid, deputized by his Texas Ranger brother, is part of a posse that's ambushed by the Butch Cavendish gang, who leave Reid for dead. Reid is rescued by Tonto, a Comanche with his own beef against Cavendish. Reid wears a mask made from his brother's leather waistcoat, with the bullet holes over his eyes. The two pursue Cavendish only to discover that he's working as the henchman of more powerful interests. That's all canon. The way the movie embellishes this is where the fun starts. The film opens with a pretty good train sequence, in which the imprisoned Cavendish makes his escape from the jail car. His cellmate is Tonto, who has tracked Cavendish down in order to kill him as a wendigo. Cavendish, as this movie portrays him, is part Alfred Packer. Also on the train is John Reid, who is traveling to Texas to start his career as a lawyer. When we first meet him, he's telling the missionaries who are traveling with him that John Locke is his Bible. Reid soon finds himself embroiled in Cavendish's escape plan, which results in Reid being shackled to Tonto and astride an out of control train that wrecks in spectacular fashion. The films stops long enough to inform the audience that Reid has is in love with his brother's wife and to show that ruthless industrialist, Cole, has designs of his own on her. Cole has designs on a whole lot, as it turns out, and he's got both legal and illegal means of pursuing it. He's employing Cavendish to fake Indian attacks in order to foment a war with the Comanche. He has designs on their land for both the railroad and the silver mine he is secretly digging. He also controls the local military presence, who he sends out to exterminate the Indians. Once Reid takes on the mask, he has his illusions about law and order stripped away from him. All of this is narrated, I should mention, many years after the fact by an ancient Tonto, who is working as an exhibit at a Wild West show at a carnival in San Francisco. He's telling the story to a boy who has swallowed the myth of the West and of the Lone Ranger whole, hoping to disabuse the boy of any romantic illusions. It's a clever narrative trick that gives the film a certain amount of narrative flexibility.

Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

The central flaw of The Lone Ranger is a second act that's interminable. During this part of the movie, Reid clings to his naivete and we get the assemblage of the paraphernalia of The Lone Ranger, though presented slightly askew. Silver is a spirit horse who has chosen Reid as a spirit walker (who cannot be killed). Tonto has a horror story of a personal history that explains the eccentricity of his character while defusing his subservient role to Reid. This is Tonto's picture more than it is the Ranger's. Tonto is profoundly more spiritual a character than he has been in the past (prompting some Christian groups to complain about his paganism, in one of the more ridiculous objections to the film). He doesn't really like Reid much at the outset. He would have preferred to partner with Reid's brother. To Tonto, the world is out of balance a la Koyaanisqatsi. The weirdest manifestation of this is the carnivorous rabbits that populate this film's version of the West. All of this stuff is necessary to the broader narrative (except maybe for the carnivorous rabbits), but most of it digresses from the central story. Once that story assumes center stage in the third act, the movie takes off like a (silver) bullet. The story beat when this occurs is emblematic of how subversive this movie actually is: Tonto and the Ranger have tracked Cavendish to Cole's hidden silver mine, where they've been pinned down by the army under the command of the treacherous Colonel Fuller, who is Cole's man. The Ranger has been captured and put in front of a firing squad. In a traditional Western, this is where the cavalry would ride to the rescue. In THIS movie, the cavalry are the villains and it's the Indians who ride to the rescue. The movie takes this a step further than simple irony, though: The Comanche cavalry are massacred with a Gatling gun for their efforts. There's a recurrent subtext of genocide throughout the film, but this is a point where it's made explicit and shows up the lionization of U.S. Army Cavalry by Western films as utterly grotesque.

It's a testament to the resurgence of robber baron capitalism in contemporary politics that Cole can seem like such a relevant villain. When he stages a hostile takeover of the railroad at gunpoint, it's only slightly more absurd than any number of corporate takeovers from the last couple of decades. This may seem a partisan film, in which the haves are predators and the have nots need a white knight, but that's the American experience for you. The have nots think they're the haves on a bad day and are content with their chains because of it. As Alexis de Tocqueville once said, "Americans never use the word 'peasant.'" Articulating this in a historically accurate way, and hiding it in a mammoth summer entertainment, is perhaps the film's most caustic and subversive achievement. This film is a cleverly disguised anti-capitalist screed and Cole is an avatar of right-wing politics then and now. The creepy way Cole appropriates Ruth Wilson's Rebecca Reid and her son as a kind of ersatz family of her own could be read as allegorical for the false front of "family values" put up by contemporary plutocrats. The movie intimates that Cole lost his ability to make his own family in the Civil War, which is pretty funny in this kind of interpretation, suggesting that such politics are ultimately impotent when it comes to the things that matter.

Cavendish, played by an unrecognizable William Fitchner is the flip side of Cole: he's capitalism's raw id, portrayed as a lawless cannibal that consumes the institutions of civilization. More than that, he's a nightmare out of a horror movie, a descendant of Alfred Packer and Sawney Bean. The scene where he eats Dan Reid's heart, as reflected in the eye of John Reid, transforms The Lone Ranger, briefly, into a horror movie. As this scene was unfolding, I heard some groans in the audience. It's much stronger stuff than what might be expected in a PG-13 adventure movie.

Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

Johnny Depp's Tonto is another entry in the actor's long career of eccentric performances. Contrary to what you might have heard, Tonto is not Jack Sparrow redux. He's a divine madman, of a sort. The bird the character wears on his head is off-putting at first, but the movie makes the most of it, even turning one particular plot point on it. Depp is better as Old Tonto than young, which is a strength of the movie because Tonto is the point of view for the film. Depp plays young Tonto as a combination of mad holy man and driven action hero, which sort of works. This film is the first time the actor playing Tonto has ever been top-billed, and that's understandable, given both Depp's box-office clout and Armie Hammer's relative obscurity. Hammer is a good, if fecklessly naive, Lone Ranger. The movie itself constructs the Ranger, though, rather than Hammer's performance.  He's part Ransom Stoddard from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, part Tom Destry from Destry Rides Again. The echo of James Stewart is deliberate, I think. This is a film that wants to contrast James Stewart with the revisionist Western, perhaps as a rebuke to Stewart's screen image of a decent everyman. In this, I think the film is misguided, because Stewart was no stranger to anti-Westerns. Certainly, some of the films he made with Anthony Mann are early examples of the form.

Armie Hammer in The Lone Ranger

In any event, the whole movie is constructed as a kind of crucible to transform Reid into the Lone Ranger, and by the end of the film, he's a kind of radical: his sense of justice is formed after seeing the instruments of Manifest Destiny in use and having his illusions of the rightness of America and capitalism and even law and order stripped away. There's an apocryphal story that suggests that Reid is named after the great red journalist John Reed. Given the nature of this film, I can easily believe it.

The Lone Ranger's final movement is magnificent. It's another action sequence involving trains--two of them this time--the entire thing scored to The William Tell Overture. The film briefly promises the music earlier, but when that first blast of horns hits the soundtrack for the grand finale, it cuts through the audience like a knife. The audience I was with clapped for it. The action itself is drunk on silent comedies--comparisons to Keaton's The General are inevitable--and though it may be mostly CGI, it has a visceral thrill that's absent from most of the action sequences from this summer's movies. The way this is orchestrated to the music intensifies the thrills. Indeed, this is downright operatic. The various plot threads resolve themselves in this sequence, but it's almost beside the point because the film is indulging in action filmmaking as pure abstraction at this point. It's here that The Lone Ranger lives up to its tradition of "thrilling days of yesteryear." It's one of the best pieces of pure cinema I've seen in mainstream movies in many a long season and it sent me to the theater exit beaming, infatuated with this movie probably more than its actual quality deserves. I think it might be some kind of crackpot pop-culture masterpiece. Flawed, sure, but exhilarating.

A word about the casting of Johnny Depp and the depiction of Tonto: is this racist? Of course it is. I'm not going to rationalize it. That being said, I'm well aware of the fact that the movie wouldn't exist at all if Depp wasn't playing the role. Maybe it shouldn't have been made (given the film's box office, I'm sure that Disney is probably thinking the same thing, though for different reasons). Maybe I shouldn't have gone to see it. I think I'd be poorer for that, but it is what it is. I wonder how I'll deal with Ender's Game this fall. At this point, I don't know.

1 comment:

Jim Shelley said...

I have so been waiting for your review on this movie as, like you, I found myself enjoying different parts of it but scratching my head over that excruciating second act.

The movie feels like it has two hearts as it veers into what you rightly pegged as anti-western territory at times. I've told friends it's the rare Summer Tentpole movie with not one, but two Indian massacres. :\