It’s way too long (almost two and a half hours), repetitive, and mostly unfunny, and its dependence on computer-generated imagery makes it feel almost 100 percent synthetic. But that’s not the really bad part of the $200 million comic Western The Lone Ranger. The latest Johnny Depp brainstorm —likely conceived on a hammock on his private island — is appalling in ways that you could never have anticipated. The movie mixes mismatched-buddy high jinks with scenes of carnage. In one scene, Native Americans are shot down by the U.S. cavalry on behalf of rapacious capitalist imperialists. Then it’s back to more Butch-and-Sundance antics, more pratfalls. I’m sure Depp and director Gore Verbinski didn’t mean it to come out this way, but the combination of liberal politics and Pirates of the Caribbean slapstick spectacle plays like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee reconceived as a Disney theme-park ride.
Depp has cast himself as the Native American sidekick Tonto. He’s as nuts as only Depp can make him — he wears a dead crow on his head and constantly feeds it — but he’s meant to be the movie’s moral force. Tonto is obviously a sidekick because of racial politics. In both nineteenth-century Texas (and twentieth-century Hollywood, where the Lone Ranger became a TV fixture), the hero had to be white. But it’s Tonto who urges John Reid (Armie Hammer) to don a mask and work outside a corrupt legal system. Reid begins as a (straw) man-of-non-action, a law-abiding attorney who wants to arrest and try the kind of scurvy psychopathic killers who inevitably escape captivity and murder more people, covertly aided by greedy authority figures. After people close to him are butchered and he nearly dies himself, Reid finally gets what Tonto has been trying to teach him: that the way of the masked vigilante is the only hope for justice. Audiences cheer him on but still think Edward Snowden is a traitor.
I don’t disagree with the charge that Depp is perpetuating the outdated showbiz tradition of white actors embodying broad ethnic stereotypes. (See Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan, Marlon Brando’s Japanese interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon, etc.) But I don’t entirely share the outrage. I think Depp thinks his aim is subversive: both to portray the alienation of Native Americans and send up the kind of movie in which the White Man knows best. There’s no pretense of realism. He sounds like a turn-of-the-last-century Yiddish thespian doing Shakespeare and borrows his affect — once again — from Buster Keaton. I only wish he were more physically inventive. And the less said about Armie Hammer the better. He pulls more faces than Dean Jones fighting a wayward Volkswagen.
William Fichtner makes an amusingly fiendish villain, Butch Cavendish, who’s so massively disfigured by a knife wound that his face is as twisted as his soul. And there’s something even creepier about Tom Wilkinson’s railroad executive, Cole, who wants, in the name of progress, to run a railroad through Commanche land. For one thing, only the bad guys in modern revisionist Westerns talk about progress, which always turns out to involve stealing other people’s property and killing them if they resist. For another, he dotes like a nineteenth-century-melodrama villain on Reid’s brother’s wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) — a surprisingly conventional ingénue until the climax, when she gets to jump between train cars to save her imperiled son (Bryant Prince).
Did I just say climax? I meant to say “one of the climaxes.” As usual in a Verbinski picture, there are about six — the first of which comes at a just the right time for the movie to end. And then it doesn’t. Nothing ever goes down simply. Verbinski seems hell-bent on beating Spielberg in the action-adventure mode. His busy, high-velocity, carefully storyboarded action sequences are often very witty, with a Rube Goldberg–like succession of contraptions that send our heroes hurtling. In one set piece, they’re thrown from a crashing locomotive and nearly impaled by a flying spike of iron — which then holds back an onrushing train car. The problem is that you can see the punch lines coming a beat or three before they arrive. It’s all too deliberate — and overextended. The movie lacks dash.
The bigger problem, of course, is its interweaving of silliness and sadism. Verbinski uses carnage for punctuation — he seems desensitized to the horror he’s showing us. The Lone Ranger is framed by scenes in a fair exhibition at the dawn of the twentieth century, in which a little boy (the Norman Rockwell–esque Mason Cook) happens by a diorama with a figure of the “Noble Savage.” That’s Tonto — who comes to life and tells the boy his story. Depp’s elderly-man makeup resembles the Dick Smith aging job on Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (reused, oddly enough, on Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins), and I think it’s meant to remind you of Penn’s epic. Penn also attempted a tall tale that begins with pratfalls and ends in genocide. It didn’t work, but at least his vision was of a piece with the bleak, absurdist spirit of the sixties, which began with Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 and got even darker. I don’t know how Depp and Verbinski thought their family-fun-ride version would work.
We’re at the point when Depp’s whims can lead to movies costing $200 million. “I’ve always wanted to play Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows!” Done. “I’ve always wanted to do The Lone Ranger — but as Tonto!” Let’s make it happen. Depp’s movies open big in the U.S. and, more important, in international markets, and they have the potential, in Hollywood-speak, to be highly “franchise-able.” I don’t think he’s motivated by greed. His role models are Hunter Thompson and Marlon Brando, and I’m guessing he sees movies like The Lone Ranger as amounting to a sneaky, countercultural takeover of the Hollywood blockbuster machine. (One-time Native American spokesman Brando would have gotten the joke.) But it’s either very dumb or very cynical to think that Verbinski (armed with 200 million Disney dollars) could deliver anything but an epic mess.