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The Lone Ranger (2013): A Rambling Journey Towards Meaning

“All these years, I thought you were Wendigo. But you’re just another white man.”

That single line of dialogue, spoken by Johnny Depp’s Tonto very near the end of a two-and-a-half-hour running time, suddenly brought the thematic center of Disney’s Lone Ranger reboot into sharp focus. My mind raced back to the film’s opening moments, when Tonto—aged, withered, reduced to working as a living diorama (“The Noble Savage”) in a carnival sideshow—spots a young boy dressed in a Lone Ranger costume. “You bring horses?“ he asks, eyes glistening with hope as he imagines riding off into the sunset with his old friend. Alas, the boy is not his old friend. There is no sunset, just a crude painting of an arid desert landscape. The crushing burden of Tonto’s defeat is evident even through the thick layers of latex and makeup: everything he holds dear—his heritage, his dignity, his dreams of a happy ending—has been stripped away. Resigned to his fate, he takes the boy’s bag of peanuts in exchange for a dead mouse—the only thing of value he has left to trade.

"His mind is broken,” an elderly Comanche says of Tonto earlier in the narrative (though later in screen time, thanks to the anachronic structure)—and it is clear that his condition has only further deteriorated with age and continued oppression. Depp has been widely (and not unjustifiably) criticized for taking the role of yet another “Hollywood Injun,“ but the character’s quirks and eccentricities do not reflect his cultural background—indeed, even Tonto’s fellow Comanches consider him a bit of an oddball. Rather, his bizarre behavior arises from his traumatic past. Thus, that line—“You’re just another white man"—represents his immense growth as a character, the rejection of his fabricated role as his tribe’s last Wendigo hunter and the acknowledgement of the inherent injustices of the Old West’s march towards “progress.” No longer will he attempt to rationalize the pain he has suffered; his eyes have been opened, and he is ready to continue the fight against corruption.

And that’s great. It’s just fine. But if that is the case… if the villain really is “just another white man"… if there is no Wendigo, no cursed silver… then what the hell is the deal with the killer rabbits? How do Tonto’s frequent and accurate observations about nature being “out of balance" fit into the larger narrative of his grand delusion?

One could argue, I suppose, that Old Tonto is an unreliable narrator, that such inconsistencies are the result of the storyteller’s fractured psyche… but The Lone Ranger simply doesn’t feel like that kind of movie. Unlike, say, Rashomon, I do not interpret it as the story of someone (or several someones) telling a biased version of another story, leaving the viewer to sort the truth from the lies. After all, The Lone Ranger’s plot cannot possibly reflect Tonto’s exact words as he weaves his tale in the framing device—it constantly makes reference to events that neither he nor John Reid could have witnessed!

No, I do not believe that these plot holes represent a conscious creative choice. Rather, they are a symptom of the film’s larger identity crisis; as many critics have already commented, The Lone Ranger simply cannot decide what kind of story it wants to tell. Consider, for example, the scene in which Tonto mourns the failure of a desperate Comanche counterattack: stark, haunting imagery—scattered shields and weapons drifting lazily downriver, illuminated by the pale, ethereal moonlight—evokes the emotional devastation of the slaughter. Tonto, unable to confront the carnage, cradles the dead bird that has been his constant companion. And then… we cut to the Ranger’s white horse, perched atop the highest branch of a tree, happily munching on a bit of vegetation and wearing, for no discernible reason, the hero’s comically oversized hat. “Something very wrong with that horse,“ Tonto observes, also for no discernible reason.

What is the intended purpose of this juxtaposition? Indeed, what is the intended purpose of the movie as a whole? Is it a lighthearted supernatural adventure… or a mournful, somber meditation on the very real atrocities committed against America’s native inhabitants? Ultimately, the film is both and neither, and it suffers for it, lacking the cohesive vision and effortless confidence that made director Gore Verbinski’s own Pirates of the Caribbean an instant classic. Instead, The Lone Ranger remains an occasionally fun and thrilling, but ultimately muddled, incoherent, rambling journey towards some ill-conceived semblance of deeper significance.

[Originally written July 9, 2013.]

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