In 1995, Johnny Depp starred in Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's radical reimagining of the Western and one of my favorite movies of all time. Filmed in beautiful black and white, Depp plays an accountant named William Blake who is gravely wounded while killing a man in self-defense. He flees and is discovered by an eccentric American Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who believes that Blake is the deceased author, artist, and poet William Blake. To restore balance, Nobody offers to return Blake to the land of the dead where he belongs.
Now, eighteen years and over a billion box office dollars later, Depp is now the one playing a weird Native American coaching (and often annoying) a white man on a spiritual journey, except now it's in Disney's version of The Lone Ranger, which had a dismal opening weekend that will make it virtually impossible for Disney to make a decent profit after recouping close to $400 million spent on production and advertising.
Was The Lone Ranger doomed by early (and correct) reports that the film is unusually violent for a PG-13 movie, especially one aimed at kids and families? And is the character of Tonto, long seen as a racist caricature, finally allowed to rise above the role of sidekick and noble savage? Watch my ReThink Review of The Lone Ranger below (transcript following).
Disney's remake of The Lone Ranger made just $29 million on its opening weekend against a budget over $215 million, and for good reason. Despite its beautiful widescreen cinematography filmed across six western states, The Lone Ranger has a lot of problems, including a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, an uneven tone, and graphic violence that stretches the boundaries of its PG-13 rating. But first, there's the question many are asking: in a new era of racial sensitivity, will The Lone Ranger's faithful American Indian sidekick Tonto finally get a fair shake?
The Tonto of the original Lone Ranger radio and TV shows embodied the Noble Savage, a caricature demonstrating that so-called "primitive" brown people could behave with honor. In fact, when we first meet the elderly Tonto in 1933 in the new film, he's in a Wild West display labeling him as "the Noble Savage." But now, Johnny Depp (who plays Tonto and claims to be part Cherokee or Creek) is given top billing ahead of Armie Hammer, who plays the principled lawyer John Reid who eventually becomes The Lone Ranger.
Tonto in 2013 is no sidekick, nor is he particularly noble, but is instead a bit of a weirdo who only pairs with Reid because they share the goal of tracking down Bruce Cavendish, an outlaw and Indian killer (played by William Fichtner) who murders six Texas Rangers, including Reid's brother (and presumably John Reid as well) in an ambush. When Tonto finds the bodies and sees that Reid is still alive, he concludes that Reid is a "spirit walker" brought back from the dead by a white spirit horse, who becomes the Lone Ranger's trusty steed, Silver. It's Tonto who unwittingly gives birth to the Lone Ranger legend, telling Reid to wear the iconic mask and keep his survival a secret.
Tonto is driven by revenge and madness, not friendship or devotion, and mostly looks down on Reid, who is portrayed more as a fish-out-of-water city slicker than a heroic cowboy. However, we later learn that this madness, which is mostly played for laughs as goofy eccentricity, was born from a horrific, bloody tragedy, a good example of the jarring violence and inconsistent tone that plagues the film.
While The Lone Ranger was made by much of the team that made the PG-13 yet family-friendly Pirates of the Caribbean films, make no mistake -- The Lone Ranger is very, sometimes needlessly, violent, especially early in the film, where the number of chest-exploding bullet wounds reminded me of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained with the blood geysers turned down a notch. Maybe I've gotten soft from all the mass shootings over the past few years, but I've lost the taste for seeing innocent people and lawmen being graphically gunned down, and young kids who've had the grim reality of school shootings forced upon them may not react well to seeing so much innocent blood shed, including not one, but two massacres of Comanche Indians. I'd guess that a studio with less political pull than Disney would not have gotten a PG-13 rating.
At the same time, and sometimes seconds apart, we're expected to laugh at things like Silver drinking whiskey or wearing a cowboy hat while perched in a tree, some bit of odd couple silliness or bickering between Reid and Tonto, or some cute but carnivorous rabbits who seem to be a prelude to a more supernatural sequel which will now most likely never come. And by the time the William Tell Overture kicks in, music now synonymous with The Lone Ranger and campy chase scenes, you'll feel like you've been watching pieces of three wildly divergent interpretations of the same legend made for different audiences.
But while it's not enough to save what will go down as Disney's second huge money-loser after 2012's John Carter, The Lone Ranger deserves credit for making Tonto a full character equal to John Reid, as well as emphasizing the greed, cruelty, and broken treaties used to take American Indians' rightful land, as well as their lives. And while some may see this as a spoiler, during the closing credits, you'll be treated to a beautiful shot of the aged Tonto hobbling through the breathtaking and iconic Monument Valley, a silent acknowledgement that for all the indignities suffered by Tonto, the Native Americans who played him, and American Indians in general, Tonto finally gets to return to his home, on his own and on his own terms.