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The Lone Ranger

It seems like all Native America wanted to talk about this summer was “The Lone Ranger” and whether it honored or offended Native Americans. I’ve read articles from Native people on both sides, so I’ll let my words be few on this topic. Frankly, I expected it to be worse. It makes some honest, if clumsy and possibly misguided, attempts to honor Native peoples. Its greatest sin is that it relegates Native Americans to the past. Tonto appears to be the last living Indian, and he’s hardly more than a peanut-guzzling wax figure in a Wild West museum. The filmmakers might be surprised to find that there are vital and growing Native communities in the 21st century.

“The Lone Ranger” opens in a Wild West museum, where an extremely old Tonto is part of the display. This ancient Indian narrates the entire story to a young boy wearing a toy six-shooter and cowboy hat. About halfway through the film, we learn that Tonto (Johnny Depp), because of childhood trauma, has suffered a break with reality and is completely nuts. When you put these two scenes together – when you recognize that the whole movie is a story told by a man who has completely lost touch with reality – things start to make a little more sense.

This is a schizophrenic film. The experience of watching it is similar to what I imagine a visit to a mental hospital would be like. It veers from ridiculous to campy, from fast-paced and breathless to terribly serious to suddenly, perhaps unintentionally, funny again. It’s hard to keep up. It might be pointless to try. Like an amusement park ride, the way it moves, jerks, veers and swoops will either make you light-headed and woozy, or it will make you puke.

Armie Hammer stars as a self-righteous lawyer who seems to believe that he can singlehandedly bring Justice and Order to the wild, wild West. This is the good guy, and also the film’s first big problem: he’s completely unlikable. From the beginning of the film to the end, he’s stiff, and arrogant, and self-righteous. Even Tonto doesn’t like him, but we’ll get to that.

Hammer quickly gets deputized and rides out into the desert, where the bad guy, who literally eats the heart of his enemy, slaughters everyone around him. Yep, this is a kid’s movie. Depp shows up to bury the dead bodies, but discovers that this one’s only mostly dead. Mostly dead means slightly alive, so he nurses the stranger with the big white hat back to health, convinced by a bird (or a hallucination of a bird, I’m not sure) that this man can’t be killed.

Depp and Hammer ride after the bad guys, only to discover that the good guys are actually the bad guys, and the original bad guys don’t matter that much, and before long, the Army’s involved, and we’re all thoroughly confused as far as who’s on which side and why.

Actually, I’d like to pause and talk about the Army, because it might be the one place where “The Lone Ranger” actually has something interesting to say. Barry Pepper plays the Army commander, who is sent in by the government to fight the Comanches, who attacking and killing innocent folks along the frontier. Pepper is presented by the film as a good man sent to do a job, and only concerned with doing it well and completely. It’s only after he and his army have slaughtered an entire Comanche war party that he discovers that it wasn’t the Comanches killing the ranchers after all, but railroad workers dressed up as Comanches because the evil railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson) wants the Comanches out of the way. Fuller has been tricked and manipulated.

Then, so quickly that you might miss it, Pepper comes to a watershed moment in his life — will he admit that he has unwittingly done a terrible thing, slaughtering innocent people, then repent and try to make amends? Or will he continue down the road he’s found himself on, buying the lie he’s been told, a lie that justifies his own actions? In this all-too-brief moment, I think the makers of “The Lone Ranger” have hit upon the situation of most white Americans, and the tough choice in front of them — to ignore/justify the past, or to go about the hard, soul-searching work of repentance and reconciliation, and seek a better future. Sadly, I’m afraid most people choose the same path Pepper chose.

“The Lone Ranger” was a big box office disappointment for Disney, and I can’t say that you’ll miss much if you decide to skip it when it comes out on DVD soon. I didn’t find it as terribly offensive as some people did, but frankly, it just wasn’t a very good movie. There are certainly better things you could do with your time.



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Posted in All Reviews, Native & Indigenous Cinema.

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