Out of Balance: Gore Verbinski and "The Lone Ranger"

Gore Verbinski's maligned _The Lone Ranger_ receives consideration as not merely popcorn thrills but something defined by smarts, and wit.
Ryland Walker Knight

"Mutability is no longer about the physical body's sad corruption, nor about the freshness of the New Thing. Enter Tao, exit Reason. To live in this flux, Zen demands mu, "unasking the question"—for the question invariably asks to preserve the unpreservable, in language of the reified present. What shall we call our culture of coping in this tide of historical samsara? Let us call it: mutopia." —István Csicsery-Rónay

Gore Verbinski made his name making blockbusters produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a producer often associated with all the "wrongs" of Hollywood. And Verbinski’s most successful movies are seriously non-serious—even outright bizarre—roundelays of cartoon antics. The second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which he directed, were both bigger hits than his first installment and are jointly defined by their go-everywhere plotting, the characters' constant scheming, and one feat of derring-do set piece orchestration after another. They're also rather mordant, with deaths aplenty (even Johnny Depp's halfway-heroic Captain Jack dies at one point), which fudges what is popcorn fun and what makes "a kids movie" in the end. These megawatt movies are off kilter—goofy, even—as they try to jam as many ideas as hijinks into their often distended running times, all the moving pieces ricocheting in an absurd manner, which can exhaust as many people as it excites.

This year's The Lone Ranger isn't all that different, though it is pitched in an even darker tone, accentuated by its bleach-bypass, contrast-heavy hues. In fact, this film shares a rather obvious family resemblance with Verbinski’s first animated feature, Rango (2011). Both films are Westerns eager to play with the iconography of The West/ern; both star Johnny Depp (more or less) in roles where his skin tone matters (a chameleon, a face-paint-caked Comanche); and both are oddly anti-capitalist in their vision of what István Csicsery-Rónay calls mutopia, the world as always already in flux, and forever at the precipice of inevitable change.

It is even possible characterize the Pirates movies as anti-capitalist, too, in how they prize freedom above duty bound by finances. I'm sure some libertarian has taken this idea all the wrong way to its foolish conclusion—and it's especially problematic coming from tentpole movies financed by Disney at or around $200 million—but the fact remains that the bad guys in each of these movies are figureheads for "progress" whose greed is manifested in the narrative as a desire to control the uncontrollable, be it The Sea or The West—both spaces romanticized for just how open they are, how many possibilities they hold for the protagonists, who are usually defined as "the little guy" (against big heavies). It's a generic inheritance that's more or less a structure to outline the stakes at play in these mutable landscapes.

The Lone Ranger complicates this premise by how Verbinski toys with the tropes of American history (and our present, I'd argue) that stems from the now-normal critiques of the "stupid white man" and his Manifest Destiny: the film makes history a game, a play-area for myth. That's a lot to tackle in a popcorn blockbuster. And I think it's safe to make the generalization that the American audience in 2013, for one, just does not care about The Western as a genre. I would argue that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) was not popular because of its generic tropes, no matter how much Tarantino wanted to show off his particular love of (Spaghetti) Westerns; rather, Django Unchained is more in your face with all it wants to talk about, and blow up, because Tarantino is outraged by history.

Regardless of their respective box office performances, however, Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger make an interesting pair: both films are meticulously aesthetic and political visions, employing a variety of forms/tropes (of artifice) to critique the myth of America. Django Unchained is more concerned with the past tense, and is rather single-minded (some may say "simple-minded") in depicting just how awful that chapter in our history was; The Lone Ranger is more interested in how the country met modernity, how the world seemed still open but closing, leaving less space for "little people" as the map began to fill in from coast to coast. Both films see the evil in avarice at the heart of owning property, of seeing the world (this vast landscape) as for the taking; but where Django Unchained is bluntly righteous, and moral, The Lone Ranger is somehow both oblique and open, allowing characters to change their minds as their understanding of the world's machinations become complicated by a "reality" forever out of balance and frankly up for debate.

Tarantino's angle is frank: slavery and the Civil War are as up close and personal a manifestation of that evil as our country's history knows, though this horror is matched mainly in buckets of blood exploded on the screen. Verbinski's film makes a somewhat indirect argument that starts by name checking Locke's "First and Second Treatise" to signal its ideas about what determines civilization: among other things, all men are created equal in the "state of nature," and the social contract we live within gives us rights not only to life, liberty, and estate (one owns himself first, property second), but to revolution as a safeguard against tyranny. The Lone Ranger is, in the majority of its story, a chase film about a pair of misfits fighting an industrial corporation hell bent on raping nature of her treasures in order to claim her against all comers and ward off the possible successes of the nameless.

Compared to the relatively straight-line revenge plotting of Django Unchained (for Q.T., at least, who still enjoys asides and episodic narratives), The Lone Ranger is a shell game of storytelling. There is a narrator, to begin with, and his story's veracity is at question—as much as his very existence.

Let me back up: This Lone Ranger opens in 1933, a nod to the year the original radio show began its broadcast, with an image of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction, a striking icon of Western modernity, which we leave via an elaborate crane shot that descends into a bustling carnival as a yard barker invites you, the audience to "step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and come with us to yesteryear. Witness the wild west as it really was: the greatest show on Earth." We see the man as he says, "Fun and educational for you, young sir," to a young boy, wearing the iconic mask and cowboy outfit of the Lone Ranger, as he enters a sideshow tent. Inside the tent, we see a series of museum-like dioramas (frames within frames) of Manifest Destiny's victims: The Mighty Buffalo, The Grizzly Bear and a sad figure labeled The Noble Savage.

The boy stops in front of the Savage, eating his peanuts, and the Savage's eyes comes to life. The boy fires a round caps from his toy gun, backing up, in our first dumb show of The West. The Savage's harsh look turns to tears, and he utters, "Kemosabe," as he drops his axe. The boy tells The Savage he is mistaken and, after a thought, The Savage asks to make a trade for the peanuts; the boy gets a dead mouse in exchange. The Savage eats some nuts and feeds some to the dead bird perched on his head before the boy asks, "Who did you think I was, anyways?" And we have our first mythic shot: Monument Valley, buttes and all, with two horses overlooking the composition. And we have our first bit of fun: The masked Ranger and our now-face-painted Indian storm into town, shooting the booze out of the hand of a drunk and upsetting the order inside a bank they announce they're robbing. —Which is where the image freezes, and Johnny Depp's head-dressed mug is the only thing to move, looking directly into the camera, as the boy interrupts, "Wait a minute, you're saying you're Tonto, the Tonto?" And we're back in the tent, where Tonto asks, bright and curious, "There is another?"

Everything you need to know about the picture, its attitude towards story, myth, representation, reality and this new vision of Tonto in particular is in this first five minutes. In short, everything is at question. Who is good, what is real and not, how the story is told, where the story is happening (inside one story, and still another), what the story's stakes are ("There comes a time, kemosabe, when good man must wear mask."), and why it needs telling by this character in particular. After all, we only really tell stories about ourselves, so of course this Tonto balks at the idea of somebody besides him claiming his name.

Tonto was once an embarrassing collection of racist ideas, but here he becomes, among other things, a curio and a madman mime, another Johnny Depp rogue. In one frame, he is all leathery and shrunken and confused; in another, all fake-painted and strapping (albeit tiny next to Armie Hammer's Ranger); and at all events taciturn, even as a narrator, tipping the film's hand that he is as unreliable as the history we know and take for granted. Tonto, in essence, tells his story to make himself known (again?), as if becoming a story is the only way to become a human and not just a myth (nor a racist cartoon). By the end of the film, however, in a truly egalitarian move to embrace the post-human, the distinction between what is real and what is myth is more or less erased. The boy questions Tonto whether the story he/we just heard is real, which Tonto meets with a wink: "Up to you, kemosabe." The boy puzzles this, looks away, and in the empty diorama is now a crow in place of Tonto. The question of "what's real?" is a useless rift (as useless as the idea of a "sidekick") in this film's play of significance—the story's been told, you bought your ticket, and you can decide how much you want to believe in.

In her essential-reading essay published at Jacobin, "The Fantastic Failure of The Lone Ranger," Eileen Jones writes:

"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 mangle, with the massacres and the psychosis and the politicalized raged, while keeping the laughs and the 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."

I agree with and/or endorse just about all of that characterization of Verbinski's movies, and The Lone Ranger in particular. Verbinski excels at making these kinds of action movies because, as Glenn Kenny said last summer, the tentpole film is an environment, a world unto itself that, if the movie is working, an audience can accept as an invitation not unlike that of a yardbarker at a fair or circus. You buy your ticket, you take the ride—except in the movies it's all make-believe pictures creating the spectacle. Whether or not an audience acknowledges and enjoys any of these film-fabrications is hard to predict, but it stands to reason that the first Pirates movie created such goofily wide-ranging territory of fantasy extravaganza, criss crossed with jokes and antic choreography, that it appealed to a wide swath of the movie-going public. (Put otherwise, the non-serious was expected in a genre so removed from today's realities.)

As Jones notes in her piece prior to my excerpt, The Lone Ranger's tone was hardly fitting for a Western, revisionist or not, because of that will to "chipper slapstick" instead of mordant seriousness, or, in the case of Q.T./Django Unchained, moral seriousness punctuated by ejaculations of blood and casual profanity to break the spell of danger. Or, put yet another way, the variance between the horrors and the comedies in The Lone Ranger is so great that it is ultimately dissonant for many audiences. (A man's heart is eaten, a horse becomes an acting partner for Depp; a league of Comanches is gatling-gunned down, the horse shows up in a tree.) Everything in the film is so absurd, and so patently fabricated by the very telling, as coming from Tonto's cracked brain, that it fits as a madman's kaleidoscopic vision, not a cohesive tableau, of his life/story. Because, despite the name and the Disney trappings, this is Tonto's film: a polyphony at play, producing flux of ideas.

A lot of critics, Jones included, point to Arthur Penn's Little Big Man as the most obvious point of reference for Tonto's frame narrative, and that's apt. But the biggest influence on the story told, and its ideas about the storytelling, is probably John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford's film is chiefly concerned with myth, its value (the realm of ethics), and how the truth can deflate it. It's also about a dorky Easterner who becomes a paragon of Western ideals based on the image his best friend helps him create of himself, which also happens to be the plot of The Lone Ranger. However, The Lone Ranger cares very little for Truth, per se. Rather, the film argues that all history is already legend at this point in the story and in 2013—it's already been printed, and more importantly sold—but we can play with the story part of it to satisfy ourselves as much as the history itself. Truth lies with the teller of the story, and how he (always he) tells it.

The playing-with is at the heart of Tonto's (Verbinski's) desire to remake the world as many times over as necessary, to embrace the flux of truths that govern whatever it is we've agreed to call a social contract, to point a finger at how much money is behind every orchestration of so-called progress. This is a common enough theme within The Western genre (and Western art as a whole), but Verbinski goes out of his way to side with the oddballs, with those operating on the margins, to shine a spotlight on those eager to join a society that rejects them, to complicate what we hold to be true of our country's cultural make-up. After all, the film ends with Tonto, dressed like Chaplin's tramp, entering (Ford's favorite location) the real Monument Valley after telling his story in front of the diorama's painting of it, in effect to take his place as part of The West's very landscape—of images.1  He ultimately recedes to a dot, dwarfed, which may be a final comment on his generally accepted place in our vista of history.

Building a movie around a face-painted Indian in 2013 certainly isn't fashionable and I understand that he might remain a caricature for many audiences, but this Tonto speaks in broken English not because he's a Noble Savage of meager vocabulary but because of his madness. One scene in particular makes a point, at the expense of the ultimate square Ranger (we all remember Hammer playing a twined version of The Uber WASP in The Social Network), to show us that the rest of the Comanche speak perfectly fluent English. The scene goes on, into another flashback, to tell the story behind our Tonto's psychic break at the sight of his tribe's massacre, motivating his quest for vengeance. Tonto does not serve the square Ranger and his Locke-inherited view of civilization; in fact, he expressly challenges the Ranger's very status as a warrior because he refuses to kill, or let Tonto kill, Tonto's sworn enemy (who also happens to be the Ranger's as well). If this Ranger, John Reid, is analogous to Jimmy Stewart's Rasom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, then Tonto is analogous to John Wayne's Tom Doniphon, except their fates are reversed in the new film: Tonto is alive, the mouthpiece for Reid's legend, but only insofar as it allows his role its rightful place, on equal footing. The fact that a Disney tentpole was launched to tell this version of the story is something to celebrate.

Furthermore, the movie is full of energy, almost like one long chase sequence, albeit with necessary pauses to spell the characters as much as the audience. Verbinski has all the right theoretical ideas for me to back when it comes to how he wants to figure the West of yesteryear. But maybe more importantly he has an eye for action set-pieces as lucid as anybody working in late Hollywood's blockbuster-bound era of the past three decades. He likewise riddles his films with sight gags, but they're never just gags—they always play into the concept of the film, and Verbinski's consistent tendency to make movies about various systems of order falling apart and/or exploding.

In Verbinski's first feature, Mousehunt (1997), the two principle sets—a yarn factory and a crumbling mansion—become a playground for mischief, the mouse an agent of chaos bent on survival by way of abusing his predators. The film is an absurd machine of dynamics—of forces at play against one another, of plans backfiring—that seems dreamt up for the simple idea to make a mess of things in a funny way. One gag begets another, the energy forever snowballing, until the house of cards that is the story more or less falls apart when the shanty mansion that houses the story is flooded, and then exploded, collapsing about the characters. Nihilism doesn't win, though, and the mouse helps the story resolve by inventing string cheese, a funny twist on yarn, to reinvent the factory and save the business, that marks this as a specifically American story (of commerce of course).

The second Pirates film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), structures its action scenes around circles, evoking the globe as much as how these characters are forever in orbit around one another, not in anything so simple as a love triangle but something more fluid and complex where desires are shifty and motivations continually complicated. Early in the film we see an oversized clock hoisted from a ship, an image echoed in a pair of cages (prisons) built as globes and suspended from a bridge like two pendulums; one of the final climatic fight scenes involves a water wheel breaking free of a barn and rolling faster and faster downhill forcing the three men fighting on and in it into dizzying arrangements where they are unsure who they should point their swords at. It's not dizzying for the audience, however, because Verbinski's witty staging of these set-pieces lays out all the spacial relationships and consequences.

The Lone Ranger is defined by the two train set-pieces that bookend the film—a film whose plot revolves around the railroad's conquest of the continent, about two tracks "meeting in the middle." It is tempting read this concept of two tracks as some kind of metonym for the Lone Ranger and Tonto, who are not quite metonyms for their respective races except in the idea that this story wants to picture justice as a product of their union (a term we could extend as a metonym for our country). However, the film makes a point of showing, via a map, how the trains bisect "Comanche Territory" in a sly nod to just how little regard was given to the indigenous people nearly erased from their own land. This is where the film talks to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man most pointedly: the train as a tool of expansion, not adventure, because the real adventure is in the wild, in nature. And nature, here, is defined as "out of balance" by more than just Tonto.  

Nature is angry, we gather, by the appearance of some feral rabbits, which are the most out-there element of the film. Not only do they bare their teeth like villainous mutants, they fight amongst themselves, in a pack, over the discarded bones of a rabbit that Tonto has just eaten. At first glance, this aside is just wrong, outright weird. But we'd do well to remember the ultimate bad guy in the movie, played with a sneer and make-up'd hairlip by William Fitchner, has a reputation for eating human body parts. We even see him eat a human heart, albeit reflected in the Ranger's eyeball. Out of balance, indeed. Exit reason, indeed. John Locke would not approve.

However, the vanquishing of evil does not entirely solve the balance, nor the anger, at the heart of nature in The Lone Ranger. Utopia is not restored. One of the last images we see is one of those weird feral rabbits, again flashing its fangs at the camera. The justice served in the climax restored some minor order, but the world is still at risk, utopia never attainable. But the promise of the West, as the railroad first suggested, was the ability to move on to a new space, to attempt to build that better world we all want. And I think this where the mutopia comes in: America met modernity by finding ways to reinvent itself and its ideas of a utopia, the present always mutable thanks to technology, that perpetual renewing flux of ideas, that mutopia of possibilities.

This is not an argument for American Exceptionalism. Verbinski would rather prop up the little guy, in all his oddities, against the governing system of power. His heroes in The Lone Ranger, Rango, and the Pirates movies all win the day through some combination of luck and ingenuity—with some wit, let’s say. It’s that giddy slapstick that keeps things moving, and characters reacting to their situations. The jokes privilege the absurd, sure, but everything is absurd in these mutable worlds that Verbinski creates. 

1. "Playing With Images" might be another title for a another essay on Verbinski, one that calls more attention to his American remake of The Ring (2002), and his first big hit, The Mexican (2001). The Ring is a terrific argument about the image as an infection, a biological weapon even, forever misunderstood (Naomi Watts' character spends most of the movie trying to "save" a girl-image who later emerges from screens only to murder voyeurs). While I'm sure the premise is the same in the Japanese version, Verbinski pays strict attention to the image in every scene, be it a child's drawing or a newspaper clipping up for interpretation, or even arranging a shot looking into an apartment building as a series of frames, many stories happening at once, each crying for attention. The Mexican is a trifle by comparison, if only in its slapstick tone, but it sets up the storytelling dynamic later realized by The Lone Ranger as mythic folk lore gets treated as a series of mini movies, each complicating the last, until it's revealed that none of them really matter "in the real world" by the end.

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