The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger ★★★★

“Witness the Wild West as it really was!”

High among both the least remembered and most remarkable cinematic titans of the 2010’s; a critically reviled and craftily nuanced child of corporate sovereignty/vicious condemnation of corporate sovereignty; a relentless exposé of the dark iniquities that brought America to where it is today and an exhortation of the best qualities that hold to its most sacred ideals—Gore Verbinski’s idiosyncratic, last-of-its-kind blockbuster behemoth is a bundle of contradictions that rattles around like silver nuggets in a mine cart for two and a half hours and emerges, by some minor miracle, as a cohesive complexity with a ton to say and all the gold in the West to say it. 

Before you can assess its multiple thematic merits, however, you just have to acknowledge that The Lone Ranger is really exceptional spectacle filmmaking. It never falters from its genuine personality, is consistently gorgeous to look at, and opens and closes with two of the best setpieces of the decade (the finale, scored to Lone Ranger staple “William Tell Overture” and channeling a spirit of physical audacity to set Buster Keaton’s heart aflutter, inspires chills through its magnificence more than a few times). Armie Hammer is goofy, endearing, and an old-fashioned magnetic presence, and Johnny Depp replaces his Pirates schtick with a reserve that resembles his taxidermied raven more closely than his Sparrow. Their respective dynamics and character functions—Hammer’s Ranger, earnest upholder of the law driven by virtue, and Depp’s Tonto, hardened victim disillusioned by man’s failure to follow that same standard—drive the film’s central dichotomy addressed at great length in the essay that finally gave me the push to watch this film, which essentially breaks down The Lone Ranger’s form as simultaneously deconstructive and eulogistic and therefore a deft synthesis of the ideals of both 2000’s and 2010’s blockbuster filmmaking. I won’t attempt to replicate it here, except to say that I greatly admire the film’s deft nuance in the handling of this contrast.

One thing that struck me almost immediately is how similar The Lone Ranger is in form and theme to Verbinski’s Pirate films, but Dead Man’s Chest especially. They’re both about very much the same thing: a rich history being pushed to the borders of extinction by relentless “progress” (which, in the cases of both films, is represented by British and American colonialism), and the people of this “dying breed” (a label conspicuously name-dropped in both films) fighting to keep their place within a rapidly shrinking world. In Pirates, Verbinski personifies progress as the East India Trading Company; in Ranger, he utilizes the steam engine for a similarly economic image. Both films center around four main players: the “dying breed” (played by Depp), the romantic idealist (who pines after his lost lover), and two villains who occupy opposite ends of progress and civilization (one as a mythological figure and distinct product of his time, the other as a catalyst of progress who is as much a threat to his allied antagonist as to our heroic protagonists). 

If Davy Jones works better as a soulful character than Butch Cavendish, the construction of the trans-continental railway is a better thematic image than the East India Trading Company. Here, Verbinski has a privilege he didn’t in the largely mythological Pirates, and is able to tie his wistful sadness into something historically concrete—the senseless, systematic slaughter of Native Americans—making it all the more shocking and disturbing to witness as the wheels of progress steadily penetrate the last frontier of the world. The Lone Ranger’s central conflict is driven by the fact that “there’s no stopping this train,” but a fantastic touch in the final setpiece makes Tonto’s hijacked train tear down the track backwards, equating in this film’s language to a reversal of progress’ forward march. For a moment, it’s as if the hands of a watch—another excellent visual motif—are moving in reverse, and history is preserved just as it should be: as the Lone Ranger’s world. 

The film’s great tragedy, of course, is that it’s not the Lone Ranger’s world. It is, instead, a world where “good man must wear a mask,” where the innocent are slaughtered for the comfort and advancement of the powerful. Virtue is an ideal, but an unattainable one, and so many forget to even try. This emphasizes the genius of Verbinski’s framing structure, which bookends and often punctuates the film with a vision of Tonto as an old man, relating the story as it unfolds onscreen to a young boy in 1930. What begins as a seeming mere narrative device gradually turns into something sneakily heart-wrenching, as we’re slowly given hints enough to suspect the reality of the story Tonto’s telling: this idyllic world of heroes and heroism only existed very long ago, and maybe it never existed at all. 

The greatest grace note Verbinski gives us follows this artful and really sad conclusion: just as we think the film will end in this world, we’re whipped back in time, the “William Tell Overture” triumphantly soaring and the Lone Ranger and Tonto immortalized, galloping into the sunset. I’m not crying, you are.

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