In Gore Verbinski’s two-and-a-half-hour period-blockbuster take on The Lone Ranger, a layer of dust covers everything. The seconds trickle by slowly like sweat on a brow beaten by the deluding sun. Everything is ugly and uncomfortable. The main antagonist, with grime caked on his fuzzy face, appears and reappears during one of multiple runaway train scenes and start shooting and beating and heisting. I never catch his name.
If I had wanted to get to know any of these characters, it would have been impossible. They are void. A desaturated period piece like Ranger needs charm and likable characters to make it vibrant. The Lone Ranger has neither. And so, a dead franchise stays dead. Armie Hammer disappears behind his Lone Ranger mask, which is probably the best thing for him given that this will likely flop hard—when Johnny Depp’s Tonto advises him to, “Never take off mask,” it might as well be career advice. The Lone Ranger's object of affection is his dead brother’s widow Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), whose distinguishing characteristic is that she always looks like she’s been crying. She and her son find themselves in peril, but so what? Let the dead weight drop, see if I care.
And then there is Depp, who doesn’t so much play Tonto as much as he plays Johnny Depp playing Tonto. I am someone who loves RuPaul more than most of my family members, but even I must acknowledge that Johnny Depp is pop culture’s most successful drag queen of all time. The recent Rolling Stone cover story about him carefully set out to explain why his stereotype-reliant portrayal (short abrupt sentences that alternately drop articles and verbs, that whole based-on-a-painting-by-a-white-person thing) is not racist: He has Native American blood, he was adopted as a son by a Comanche activist in a ceremony (they gave him the name Shape Shifter) and he approached the role with compassion.
“I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations,” says Depp, who’s wearing an ancient Comanche symbol on the end of his rope necklace. “They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘Fuck that! You’re still warriors, man.’”
And yet, his caricature is about as nuanced as a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon, set within a film that makes a white hero out of the plight of Comanche people (the Lone Ranger is honored for eventually saving the silver that more evil white men were attempting to steal). The plot concerns land expansion and treaty violation, and this movie has the nerve to finagle a happy ending.
“Dan very dead,” says Tonto. “Comanche gesture of respect: taste another man’s drink,” says Tonto. “I make urine on it,” says Tonto. His one-liners were largely met with awkward silence in the New York screening that I attended. They’re dumb one-liners, and Paula Deen just happened. Tonto repeatedly showers the dead bird on his head in birdseed and at one point wears a paddy hat to impersonate a Chinese railroad worker. That this is The Lone Ranger's most interesting character should speak volumes about how uninteresting this movie is. Tonto is flanked by duds. Only Helena Bonham Carter’s madam is equally memorable. In all red everything (hair, dress, name), she carries a Mae West swagger and, at 47, is sexier than she's ever been.
The film’s framing device has Tonto telling the story in flashbacks as he stands in a display at a 1933 San Francisco fair. He’s supposed to be inanimate but the magic of a child’s curiosity, face mask, and voice squeaks bring him to life. Under him, a plaque reads, “The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat.” The story Tonto tells corrects that – it’s of the noble savage in his actual natural habitat.
It’s such a boring story. It includes a pocket-watch motif—several characters stare into clock faces just slightly less animated than them. Each tick mocks you for the time you’ve wasting.