Hollywood needs more Gore Verbinskis

"The Lone Ranger" is an incoherent mess, but its director should be applauded for his ambition and bravery

Published July 17, 2013 10:07PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinGore Verbinski’s new film The Lone Ranger is an immense failure, reviled by critics and avoided by audiences who were tipped off early about what an incoherent mess it is. And it’s an incoherent mess all right. But it’s a fantastically ambitious incoherent mess, which is typical of films directed by Verbinski. He is perhaps the most crazily exuberant filmmaker working in Hollywood’s upper echelon of reliable blockbuster-makers, and after getting away with his excesses for years and earning Walt Disney Studios billions in profits doing it, Disney has finally given him enough rope to hang himself.

For a lot of people professing to truly love film, the spectacular fiasco of a movie like The Lone Ranger becomes proof of the essential evil and idiocy of Hollywood cinema. I’ve never been able to accede to this view. Loving film plus hating the entirety of Hollywood’s output is an equation I could never work out—Hollywood has simply produced too many great films over the decades, even if it also seems to produce fewer and fewer as the years go on. Even Gore Verbinski agrees to that, and puts himself in the company of those participating in the death throes of Hollywood, laughing as he says, “We seem to be on some crazy road to extinction.”

And there you have the Verbinski Experience in a nutshell: laughing on the crazy road to extinction. He loves that, and can’t find enough ways to re-enact it in film. A more cheerful end-of-the-world enthusiast you’ll never find. If you want to see the death-drive in action, celebrated for the way it compels us toward both ludicrous slapstick escape strategies and attempts at glorious theatrical star turns, you need look no further than Rango and The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Sure we’re all going to die, but just think of the opportunities to show off!

Mark Twain would’ve appreciated the impulse behind Verbinski’s film-deaths, both the fatal pratfalls and the gorgeous flourishes. Consider Jack Sparrow’s death scene: facing down the Kraken’s roar, getting comically doused in a ton of Kraken sputum and muttering, “Not so bad,” then recovering enough to perform his own mighty self-mythologizing death scene, leaping directly into the Kraken’s fearsome maw in slo-mo, sword drawn, as if to illogically fight the beast from the inside.

He’s a very American filmmaker, Verbinski, and it’s no wonder he keeps getting drawn to the Western, trying to find a way to revive it. It’s got the focus on a world going extinct that he likes, and the show-off theatrics in the face of death (though they’re often tamped down in Westerns and not recognized as such).

But the classic Western is a genre inclined to insist on its own seriousness, overwhelming any cornball humor that’s mixed in to soften this weightness. And of course it tends toward melancholy, enshrining something already lost: the unspoiled grandeur of the land, the freedom of movement on the frontier, the necessary self-sufficiency of life there, the reliance on violence that can be seen as meaningful and honorable, and the heroic men we imagine suited such a world. And the revisionist Western builds in even more self-seriousness. The post-World War II Western, like most of the genres of the 1940s-1950s, is infused with “social problem” concerns such as racism, vigilantism, and disturbed psychology (Broken ArrowThe Ox-Bow Incident, late John Ford and Anthony Mann Westerns). In the 1960s and 1970s, this questioning of the basic premises of the Western, and the increasing impulse toward something resembling historical accuracy, builds to a peak of psychotic violence and politically critical fury with Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

Extended self-seriousness is not Verbinski’s bag at all. He can do lost-world melancholy in particular scenes, but it’s always overshadowed by chipper slapstick action and his characters’ energetic self-mythologizing. His “politics” in film appear to be of the Chaplin-Keaton school—small marginalized oddballs against big oppressive forces. He likes little collectives versus large proto-capitalists: the mixed-race, gender-inclusive, animals-and-undead-welcome pirate band versus the East India Tea Company that increasingly owns and runs the world in Pirates of the Caribbean; the community of desert prey-animals trying to preserve a trickle of water versus the vile predators hogging it all in Rango.

Nevertheless, The Lone Ranger clearly intends to inherit the revisionist Western mantle, with the massacres and the psychosis and the politicalized rage, while keeping the laughs and slapstick action. Typical of Verbinski’s more-is-more attitude, he doesn’t seem to see the problem with putting wildly clashing elements together and stirring vigorously. This is most critics’ central complaint: the “unevenness,” the collision of genre elements, as if Verbinski meant to do something smooth and unified and polished but accidentally tripped and fell with an immense crash, and the resulting jagged pile of breakage is the film. But there’s no indication that he ever meant to create a tightly controlled genre narrative. He almost never does. It’s clear, in fact, that in his recent films Verbinski is monkeying around with narrative structure, testing the limits of how sprawling and loose and convoluted and overpopulated he can make them. With The Lone Ranger he’s found the limit, at least the limit of the American general public, and sped past it to utter box-office catastrophe.

Verbinski begins his revisionist Western with the highly publicized move to cast Tonto as the leading man instead of the Lone Ranger. The switch has been dismissed as merely an expedient necessity — Johnny Depp is the star of the film, and his desire to play Tonto is what started this whole rigmarole — but Verbinski doubles down by refusing to take the Lone Ranger seriously at all, except as a creation of Tonto’s. Though we get a version of the familiar superhero backstory for the Lone Ranger, the same kind we’ve seen with Batman, Spiderman, Superman—how he got his outfit, his catchphrases, his special powers, his motivation to fight for justice—the whole process is in terms of the Lone Ranger’s manifest silliness and wrongness and inadequacy that somehow has to be overcome. The absurdly named Armie Hammer plays the Lone Ranger as a mugging Dudley Do-Right, handsome and earnest and thick as two planks. It is the young Tonto’s unenviable job to mold this nitwit into something resembling a “great warrior” for justice. And in the frame story, it is the old Tonto’s unenviable job to try to mold this nitwit into the hero of a great story, for obscure purposes of his own.

The frame story is the clearest indication of how Verbinski wants to place his film in the tradition of revisionist Westerns, but it has either been ignored by critics or dismissed as meaningless. For example, here’s Richard Corliss, the film critic at Time for the past hundred years or so, explaining the basic set-up of The Lone Ranger:

Narrated (for no particular reason except to make a long movie even longer) by an aged Tonto to a kid in a Lone Ranger mask, the movie proposes that its leading man [the Lone Ranger] is a well-meaning oaf with no sense of hero couture. When at Tonto’s insistence he dons the mask, he asks, like a self-conscious actor forced to wear jester’s garb, “You sure this works?” He also seems not to know that the Lone Ranger is supposed to have a partner…

Corliss is flummoxed by the whole approach, but especially by the John Reid aka Lone Ranger character’s lack of awareness of his own story, that he’s supposed to be the masked hero with a Comanche partner and all the rest of the old-timey lore culled from The Lone Ranger as a pop cultural phenomenon on the radio, in pulp novels and comics and, most famously and influentially, on TV. It’s a remarkable belief, that we all already know the story, and the characters should also know the story and act accordingly.

But the question “What IS the story of the Lone Ranger?” is central to Verbinski’s film. And it’s a sensible question for most of us to ask, because who among us now remembers the details of that story as inherited from all those pop culture sources, beyond some vague recollection that “Hi-ho Silver!” figures into it? Once you actually know more, you realize there’s no way to revive it in anything resembling its once-popular form, unless you’re a racist moron.

So here’s a brief recap. The television Lone Ranger (played by Clayton Moore) is so-called because he’s the last surviving member of a group of Texas Rangers killed in a massacre. He’s a godlike man riding a white horse named Silver and wearing a white hat and immaculate outfit that never gets soiled no matter how much sagebrush he’s dragged through. He’s also masked so he can elude pursuit and strike superstitious fear into the hearts of evil-doers, and when he rides away after tamping down community conflict, some grateful townsperson always asks, “Who was that masked man?” As Michael Ray Fitzgerald argues in “The White Savior and his Junior Partner: The Lone Ranger and Tonto on Cold War Television (1949-1957),” the Lone Ranger roams around the West defending law and order and seeing that Manifest Destiny is realized without any hitches. His Comanche sidekick, Tonto, “becomes an apprentice white man and a junior partner in the enterprise of Manifest Destiny.”

Tonto (played by Jay Silverheels) is so earnestly subservient that his pidgin English reply to any instruction from the Lone Ranger is “Me do!” This line was so often repeated, it became a behind-the-scenes joke between Silverheels and Moore. Tonto acts as mediator between Native Americans and whites, explaining to whichever tribe is thinking of attacking the settlers that white law is best for them as well. (“Me want law here too—for all.”)

Tonto’s Uncle-Tomism became a favorite bitter joke in the later 1950s and 1960s, the period when revisionist Westerns really began taking over the film genre, especially with John Ford’s conversion in the form of The Searchers, Sergeant Rutledge, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. As Fitzgerald tells it:

In 1958, Mad magazine presented a two-page panel by cartoonist Joe Orlando:

RANGER: Indians! Indians all around us! Well, Tonto, ol’ Kimo Sabe, it looks like we’re finished.

TONTO: What do you mean, “we”?

Later versions of this joke substituted, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

…The Lone Ranger became a target for comedians, especially Lenny Bruce, who even made jokes about Tonto’s being sodomized by the Ranger. Bill Cosby also satirized the absurdity of Tonto’s subservience, noting that the last time Tonto went into town, he was brutally attacked by settlers…:

RANGER: Tonto, you go to town.

TONTO: You go to hell, Kimo Sabe!

RANGER: I want you to get that information.

TONTO: Information say Tonto not go to town. That what information say.

Given that pop culture inheritance, it’s clear that there’s no non-despicable way to present The Lone Ranger as a straightforward, light-hearted revival of the ol’ radio and TV shows, though many critics and social media commentators call for it and are outraged by the way Verbinski has slandered their hero. As Devin Faraci contends in a pan of Verbinski’s film called “Who Ruined That Masked Man?”:

This isn’t the work of people who love the character — it’s the work of people who are ashamed of what they are doing, who snark at and pick at the mythos with every possible opportunity. At the end of the film The Lone Ranger sits atop Silver (this is 2013, so we even get an explanation for why he’s named that, by the way) and the mighty beast rears up on his hind legs, rider and steed briefly consumed by the glory of the Western sun and the Ranger cries out, “Hi ho Silver, away!”

And then Tonto looks at him all bug-eyed and says, “Never say that again.”

That’s the last bit of the movie featuring The Lone Ranger — a direct leg sweep at one of the character’s iconic moments. I hate The Lone Ranger as much as The Lone Ranger hates The Lone Ranger.

He’s right. It’s safe to say that Verbinski’s not interested — never was remotely interested — in an admiring, nostalgic revival of the 1950s iteration of the Lone Ranger, a wholly appalling character. He begins his film in the spirit of the reimagined Tonto’s “You go to hell, Kimo Sabe!” and tries to find his way from there, wandering among the touchstones of Western genre revisionism.

Of course, that revisionism makes Tonto himself a problem, with his terrible pidgin English, his most recognizable trait. Verbinski’s film grapples with that too. Unlike Tonto, the other Comanches in the film are bilingual and speak fluent English, and they reject Tonto as a “broken” figure, probably mad. Tonto is even more “lone” than the Lone Ranger, and his broken English seems to be part of what ails him. As always in recent Verbinski films, the convoluted plot rests on the erratic actions of an addled figure (invariably played by Johnny Depp) who’s so deeply immersed in performance and role-play that his identity remains in question—Jack Sparrow in the Pirates films, the lizard who takes on the Western hero persona of “Rango” in Rango, and now Tonto.

The clearest indication of Verbinski’s approach to this ridiculous and troubling Tonto character is in the frame story. The movie begins in the 1930s with a kid in a Lone Ranger outfit going to see an American history exhibit in a cheesy carnival setting. Behind display windows, amidst taxidermied buffalo, is a “Noble Savage,” a stooped elderly Native American with a slight pot belly who is also apparently stuffed. He’s represented as one with the animals slaughtered in order to make the West safe and comfortable for white settlers, immobilized and “ennobled” in a museum-like setting arranged to convey history as a romantic adventure narrative. Suddenly the Noble Savage’s rheumy eyes shift slightly to the left, startling the kid and the audience. We know then that we’ve found Tonto, still alive, but in an uncanny way that makes him a figure with uncertain status in the film’s reality, at the very least an “unreliable narrator.”

Having Tonto break out of his historic immobility and minimal expressiveness to provide a verbose, overcomplicated counter-narrative to the traditional Lone Ranger is a great idea. But its execution is another question.

The kid attending the exhibit is looking to have his favorite hero-saga of the West confirmed, but Tonto tells him a version of the Lone Ranger Story that he finds highly unsatisfactory. Throughout the film, the kid repeatedly chimes in with objections (“But aren’t you supposed to be the good guys?” “You mean, they all DIED?!”), and Tonto generally agrees that the story isn’t advancing in an ideal way.

The kid stands in for the audience, so you’re warned early on that you’re not going to get your grandaddy’s Lone Ranger. Tonto’s erratic attempt to narrate a “Western” is no audience-pleaser, even with a few laughs here and some big action there. Verbinski goes so far in making this counter-narrative messy that it’s impossible in a reasonable time to even summarize all the storylines or describe all the characters or acknowledge all the genre film references that inform the proceedings. The film seems deliberately overstuffed and un-summarizable.

As Tonto, Johnny Depp is hardly recognizable under a mound of facial wrinkles meant to evoke Dustin Hoffman in the Arthur Penn film adaptation of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. This evocation is a sensible choice, because Little Big Man (the book more successfully than the film) combines hilarity with tragedy, tall-tale-telling with an insistence on eyewitness historical accuracy, all involving an unlikely cast of thousands including some of the most famous figures of the West — Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, General Custer.

Tonto’s a rootless wanderer in the West, not so much by choice as by cataclysmic circumstances that shove him across racial lines. He’s a Comanche without a tribe, seeking revenge on the white man who oversaw his tribe’s massacre. This is a break from the Tonto backstory on TV, in which his tribe is massacred by a different, more war-like Indian tribe. In both cases, however, Tonto is tormented by guilt over their fate. Tonto crosses the color line to partner with a white man he can use as a tool to exact revenge.

And the Lone Ranger is a tool, all right.

John Reid comes from the East, duded up in a fancy suit with Locke’s Second Treatise of Government under one arm, a clear reference to the naïve Eastern lawyer played by Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a character who, as an advocate of the “progress” that will prove to be tragic for all, upsets the balance of the still-wild Western community. Reid is a hapless fool, and his fanatic dedication to the Second Treatise, one of the Founding Fathers´ favorite texts, is a startling symptom of the film’s tendency to represent the American experiment as a disastrous failure from its inception. The Second Treatise, you will recall, is the Enlightenment work that argues man exits the state of nature and enters into a social contract to better protect his property, which includes himself, his liberty, and his labor, as well as his material possessions. This conceptualization of human existence in terms of property rights led Marxist scholars to contend that Locke laid the groundwork for bourgeois capitalism, and that his Second Treatise can be read as buttressing the view that all relations are transactional relations.

Lest you think I’m reading too much into a foolish character and the book he happens to be carrying, Verbinski insists on its importance throughout the film. Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the arch-villain railroad baron, quotes chapter and verse from the Second Treatise, as well. Tonto spends most of the movie trying to figuratively pry the Second Treatise out of John Reid’s hands. And in the end, the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride off proudly as justice-seeking outlaws.

Reid and Tonto meet while riding on the same train, the train owned by Mr. Cole, whose steady takeover of the Western territory is measured by the progress of the railroad building we see in the course of the film. Whereas Reid is a respectable passenger, Tonto is a prisoner in custody of the sheriff. (“What’s your crime?” “Indian.”) Tonto’s chained to the very man who led the massacre against Tonto’s tribe, and he’s just seizing the opportunity to kill his enemy when who should come blundering in demanding respect for law and order, but John Reid, the incipient Lone Ranger himself.

Considerable confusion follows, leading to the escape of the villain and his gang and the first runaway-train sequence of the film, during which everything goes wrong for Tonto. A second runaway-train sequence serves as the movie´s climax, following the logic of Buster Keaton’s The General, in that everything goes right for the protagonist. Or rather, protagonists, for Tonto and Lone Ranger are finally united in purpose. All the forces of nature, of physics, of magical synchronicity seem to align in cooperation with them. Bullets unerringly find their mark, and the utter destruction of the train obliterates the evildoers while leaving our heroes miraculously unscathed.

In between those train sequences is a maddeningly complex narrative featuring a preternaturally intelligent horse, a spunky widow-woman, a fatuous General Custer-type, an ivory-legged brothel madam, and herds of cannibal rabbits.

That these narrative elements “don’t hold together” is an understatement. The film is a strain to watch, the editing rhythms jarring, the humor awkward, the violence lovingly extended and dwelt upon. A lot of mental work is spent forcing the pieces to fit.

It becomes a major irritant, the way the film’s frame story provides a running commentary on the unsatisfying flashback narrative. Tonto finally gives up his story by simply handing it over to the perplexed kid to finish. Then he puts on a rusty old “dude” suit and walks off into the magnificent Western desert, slowly shuffling away from the camera like an ancient Charlie Chaplin, until he’s a small dark blot in the background. But before you can say, oh, Tonto is trying to return to un-Lockean nature again, you have to recall that you’re looking at Monument Valley, the legendary location of John Ford’s great Westerns. So, goddammit, Tonto is walking back into the Western genre film, and he’s giving the narrative to us, the filmmakers and film-viewers, to interpret and sustain as we wish.

If I wanted to get fancy, I could account for Verbinski’s narrative approach by applying Andrew Dix’s argument in “Escape Stories: Narratives and Native Americans in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” In it, Dix claims Alexie uses various strategies to resist the type of monolithic and authoritarian account characteristic of US histories regarding Native Americans. These strategies include multiple narrators, dialogic story-telling strategies, “dispersed identities,” parody, open-ended constructions, and many “little narratives” that don’t add up to a unified whole:

The paradox of Alexie’s texts is that, even as they initiate narration, they are liable to leave it incomplete, unfulfilled, or encountering its material limits….Rather than ending in some significant revelation…they just exhaust the chronological sequences with which they have been concerned.

But I don’t want to get that fancy, because I’m not convinced myself. What I am convinced of is Gore Verbinski’s consistently wild, imaginative, and ambitious authorship, which appears so strange in its contemporary Hollywood blockbuster form that it goes virtually unrecognized. If you see The Lone Ranger and actually pay attention to all the maddening elements that resist fitting together, you might find it’s a more enjoyable film to think and talk about than it is to watch. I am reminded of the wonderful Mark Twain quote about Wagner’s music: “It’s better than it sounds.”

The Lone Ranger is better than it screens.

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By Eileen Jones

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