During the summer movie season, when films aspire to such broad appeal they become almost indistinguishable from each other, a movie like The Lone Ranger seems transgressive. Based on the box office bomb it has become and the critical panning it has received, The Lone Ranger seems to have indeed done something wrong. It has opted to become a outlaw film, a cinematic ambush in the middle of the most comfortable movie-going season of the year.
One would think that a white-hatted hero on a white stallion, speaking always with perfect grammar, campaigning for justice in the Wild West with his Native American sidekick close by, a hero whose greatest exploits were once communicated via radio serial, is surely without relevance in our time. Curiously, in the hands of Gore Verbinski, the Lone Ranger proves to be the most vital hero trying to save the day in our theaters this summer, but hurry and catch him while you can. The film has performed so poorly, it will likely be quickly galloping into the sunset (with a hearty “Hi-Yo, Silver!” no doubt).
The Lone Ranger, like Verbinski and Depp’s previous collaboration, Rango, is a Revisionist Western. Revisionist Westerns take the tropes of traditional Westerns, the very tropes the Lone Ranger in his heyday helped cement, and turns them upside down.
Instead of depicting the advance of civilization across the West as the triumph of law and order over chaos, Revisionist Westerns depict the tragedy of Native People’s trampled underfoot by greedy colonialists (actually “under-rail,” since the railroad is the preeminent symbol of civilization by capitalism in Westerns). Institutional authorities of all kinds – business, military, and religious – are shown to collude in pursuit of a single goal – the domination of a continent. In view of these colluding forces, Revisionist Western heroes abandon ideas of institutional justice and become instruments of chaos, attempting to unmask the colonialists for the villains they are and to disrupt the advance of civilization in favor of a more truly just world.
In the Lone Ranger’s original origin story, brothers Dan and John Reid had a secret silver mine they planned to return to once their tour of duty in the Texas Ranger corp ended, a plan interrupted by Dan’s death and by John becoming the Lone Ranger. In this new version, the villains have the secret silver mine, and pop-culture’s iconic masked man is given a revisionist history lesson. Scene by scene, he learns of the layer upon layer of perfectly legal yet entirely evil actions of the wealthy, white men in power. This is the Lone Ranger awakened to the system of corruption he once helped hold up.
Much has been made of Johnny Depp’s presumably comedic portrayal of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s guide. He is indeed funny at times, but his humor arises from his frankness and eccentricity (an eccentricity rooted in childhood trauma). Underneath Tonto’s funeral mask makeup and crow cap is clearly the same actor who gave us Captain Jack Sparrow, but Tonto isn’t cocky or (possibly) drunk. He is bitter, sad, and determined. He is the embodiment of a people decimated by the greed of an immensely powerful nation. Judging from the previews, you expect him to be a sideshow. Depp’s Tonto is a dirge.
The Lone Ranger is a dark film with an unsatisfying denouement. The film is a slave to real-world history. Native Americans were truly slaughtered. Mountains were truly razed. The conquest was truly completed. I applaud the film for being brave enough to show capitalism’s selfish march across the continent for what it truly was.
The Lone Ranger is a bitter pill made all the more galling by its pop-cultural heritage and by its juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy. (Though we differ on their effect, I am grateful to Josh Larsen for prompting me to look at those juxtapositions closely.) There are scenes of horror in this film intercut by jokes. The jokes are funny, their humor heightened by the terror in which they’re couched. However, the heightening works the other way too, and the tragedy is all the more tragic framed by laughter. Additionally, the jokes in those moments are delivered by the villains, showing all the more their villainous callus.
Three final things must be mentioned. First, as in Rango, religion in The Lone Ranger is depicted as an unwitting, zealous accomplice to business’s tyranny on the land. Overall, I think that is an unfair characterization. I know of too much good religious activity in the West to be on board with such a simplistic parody.
However, I also freely admit that religion of the worst kind is often brazenly practiced by the most selfish people on the planet. Jesus’ strongest words are reserved for the Hellenistic Jews who supported the Roman Empire at the expense of their poor, downtrodden, “heathen” neighbors. Our strongest words and our celluloid ought to be reserved for them as well. The power of the kind of people who claim Christ and then subjugate others ought to be destroyed. One day it will be.
Second, there are only two female characters in The Lone Ranger, and both of them seem practically pointless to the narrative. Taken at face value, that’s the worst kind of chauvinistic filmmaking. But consider how these women are treated by men in the film – as adornments to wealth, as objects of sexual fulfillment, as afterthoughts. Given the brazenness of these depictions and the intelligence on display in the rest of the film, these depictions of women must be intentional and, like the rest of the film, subversive. In this Revisionist Western, this kind of treatment of women is being criticized by its very depiction.
In fact, The Lone Ranger goes a step further than other Revisionist Westerns in being pro-woman. Classic Westerns depicted women as weak, the beneficiaries of masculine efforts to civilize the West. In the beginning of Classic Westerns, the town in question “ain’t fit for women.” By the end of a Classic Western, the town is “fit for women,” it’s fitness the truest sign of the hero’s success.
Revisionist Westerns sought to correct this portrayal by featuring strong women, equal to men in their cunning and bravery, and often campaigning for a more just society than their male counterparts. While laudable, this kind of depiction obscures the fact that women in the mid to late 1800s weren’t societally equal to men in any way. They weren’t allowed to be on the same footing as men, contending valiantly or dubiously at their side.
The Lone Ranger, by conspicuously marginalizing its female characters presents a more accurate portrayal of the way women were actually treated in the Old West. Furthermore, it makes us aware of the many ways women are still treated poorly today. Would it have been nice to see more nuanced female characters in this film? Sure. But this isn’t a film about nuanced characters. It’s a film aiming to awaken us to injustices in the world, and often the best way to do that is to slap us with bold, disheartening exaggerations of the truth. The way women are treated in this film is striking.
Finally, The Lone Ranger accomplished something few films do – it both supported and enriched my faith in Christ. Repeated throughout the film is the intonation that, due to the way the villains are abusing the people and the land they live on, “nature is out of balance.” Man’s evil and nature’s unbalance is demonstrated a variety of ways, but most shockingly, it is symbolized by cannibalism. One man literally eats the flesh of another, and, as a sort of response, some animals eat their own kind.
I appreciate the implication that man’s sin spreads out into the rest of creation, infecting all. By implication, when all things are made right amongst humanity (and that doesn’t happen in this movie), nature will be put back into balance as well. Indeed, nature in The Lone Ranger seems to long for that resolution. This is the very pattern we see in the Bible.
On the Sunday morning following my viewing of The Lone Ranger, the experience of seeing sin depicted as one man eating the flesh of another came back to me as we prepared to take Communion in church. In The Lone Ranger‘s cinematic lament, I had just watched evil men consume all others in their greed for more power. Suddenly, there I was, holding the body and blood of another man, and the man himself was inviting me to eat. It was as if Jesus was saying, “Consume me instead of each other.”
We expected the Lone Ranger to support the status quo like he’s always done. Instead, he unsettles us, forcing us to reflect on the ways those in power have abused weaker peoples in the past, how we have baptized those abuses in cultural myth, and how we might be continuing to do those same things today. The Lone Ranger isn’t what we expected at all.
If you are fortunate enough to catch this film before it disappears from theaters, you might find yourself asking as you walk out of the theater, “Who was that masked man anyway?” Whoever he is, he is much more than I ever anticipated he could be.