Thursday, 12 December 2013

Their Cup Runneth Over with excess, but also with love: On The Lone Ranger

* Because, when better than near the year’s end to hit publish on all those unfinished reviews in my drafts?

Movie reviewing being what it is, especially when a blockbuster comes along, it often becomes impossible to get away from the narratives that emerge around certain films. This film is important, that one is good but disappointing, and so on. The critical-speak surrounding much of what reached me about The Lone Ranger, even before it opened, seemed to be consistent to the point of being monolithic – it was an overindulgently expensive film, a paint-by-number of sorts of Verbinski’s usual conceits hoping to become another cash-grab for him and Depp. Reviewing the reviews is dubious, but when I finished watching The Lone Ranger for the first time I was puzzled at the cynicism being attached to the film’s intent. Reviewing a film’s intent is already difficult enough but I considered The Lone Ranger which I had seen and thought – indulgent? Yes. Excessive? Perhaps. Opulent? Almost, certainly. But existing purely as a would-be money-maker? Less certain. Because for all its surplus the first complete thought I attached to The Lone Ranger after seeing it was, wow, this thing really overwhelms with its genuine idiosyncrasy and sincerity of delivery.

Two years ago, in 2011 the overarching theme of films seemed to be something about taking comfort in the nostalgic and The Lone Ranger would have fit right in the fond backward glances of something like Hugo. For, The Lone Ranger doesn’t just begin in the past – it opens at a fair in 1933 – but the near (relative) past is just a set-up to cast us even further back into the past to 1869 when the eponymous Lone Ranger came into existence. Of course, over time, we’ll come to realise that the title is disingenuous (the only aspect of the film which can be considered thusly) and the tale is really about two partners – Tonto, the Comache Native American Indian telling the story in 1933 and John Reid, lawyer turned Ranger avenging his dead brother. This is a tale of the good guys versus the bad guys, so the lines are drawn in the sand rather quickly as to who is who.

The Lone Ranger never keeps you guessing as to where alliances are drawn, not really. Which is not to suggest that its script is shoddy. Credited to Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (Haythe is the odd one out here, but is credited first) the screenplay’s biggest asset is how character focused it is. Not just character focused for a blockbuster, but of its own accord. I’ve been very mistrustful of films beginning in media res recently, sometimes with no justification for it, but the way the 1933 scenes indicate much about Tonto in small beats with surprising sensitivity points to a movie that digs deeper, even if peculiarly, in its own way.

....more below on the film's peculiar beats, story conceits and gumption...

But, even though, story conceits are telegraphed from early on The Lone Ranger like any action packed hi-jinks romp is about the how as much as, sometimes even more than, the what. Therein rests the issue of the 250 million dollar budget. Films with large budgets do not always use their money wisely, sometimes they’re even ugly to espy. Not The Lone Ranger. It’s overwhelming in its excess, but it is certainly, undeniably gorgeous. The film’s climatic train battle (and not the first or second excellently staged scene involving a train either) is, maybe, my favourite visual spectacle of the year and it was the movie’s inclusion in the Academy Awards’ visual effects bake-off shortlist that made me revisit this unfinished review. Each year when the technical categories are announced at the Academy Awards the question of the divide between a quality film and quality technical aspects of a film is considered and too often the argument that “terrible” films shouldn’t get the title of Oscar nominated film, regardless of technical aspects, is infuriating. (And that’s ignoring the already rocky terrain of whether award bodies are expressly indicative of quality to begin with.) Of course, I like most of what The Lone Ranger offered but honestly its technical aspects seem readily unimpeachable. Its overwhelming “muchness” might be a turn-off, but less isn’t always more. Sometimes more is more and there seems no satisfying version of this sprawling western that does not succumb to the lavish.

It’s why Verbinski is such a simultaneously excellent and unwise choice for the story. If I had to pick a 2012 film to compare The Lone Ranger to, it would be Cloud Atlas. Both productions seem to spring from the minds of their directors with much idiosyncrasies and both terribly long and never feeling overlong. For, yes, The Lone Rangeris long and someone with a discerning eye might be able to nip some plot strands in the bud. But, in all its messy, sprawling mess I find it continuously exciting. I’ll be objective and admit that if there’s anything to indict Verbinski for it’s with an overwhelming attachment to the material. He seems simultaneously in love with all aspects of the film and it’s a sign of a film that’s saturated with elements that it’s so long because Verbinski seems – for good, and for bad – too obsessed with even the most minor of things to cut back. But, what space is there for objectivity in responding to a movie? Reviews explain away the emotions, but ultimately reaction to any piece of art is profoundly subjective and person specific. I love that almost saturated way that The Lone Ranger seems to dedicate almost injudicious time and energy to things that are not quite the focus of the main arc. It’s those asides that lend amusing side attractions like Helena Bonham Carter’s peg-legged Madame (one of my favourite production design moments is in her brothel with a fateful painting of her in her younger days) or a peculiarly rabid rabbit.

It’s why the whys of Johnny Depp being cast as Native American Tonto continues to make me wonder. It would be injudicious of me to call it a nonissue, although, I suppose it could be explained away as just another desire for Verbinski and Depp to team up. For all the knotty racial aspects of the casting decision, though, it’s opportune to point out that The Lone Ranger is most invested in Tonto than any other character in the movie. It returns me to the screenplay, and sure the depth of the character’s writing might not acquit the issues of its casting but even while delivering thrilling action set-piece after set-piece The Lone Ranger doesn’t avoid the very thorny aspects of the history from whence it emerged. As much as my issues with beginning in media res I’m similarly less than enthused with end-credit scene, but the brief moments after The Lone Ranger’s credits hits home the fact that after and maybe even during the jaunty, headiness of the film’s most action focused diversions the tale here is really a sad one of heartbreak and loss. It is too large in its thrust to be completely successful in the marriage of action packed comedy with reflective drama but I find it all much to enjoyable and too eagerly delightful to truly mind.

As of today The Lone Ranger has made something in the vicinity of 260M at the box-office, a fairly good sum until you consider that it cost something ABOUT 20M less than that to make, which the margin of profits somewhat meagre for a blockbuster of this magnitude. I liked The Lone Ranger so, of course, I weep for its failure of its own accord. I’m further melancholic about the reception, though, because as much as I may overstate I wonder if the resounding no regarding everything about The Lone Ranger might give studios the idea that knotty, idiosyncratic, romps like this aren’t worth backing with hundreds of millions. Further, I wonder how much difficult Verbinski may have in getting his next project off the ground. I accede that there are legitimate issues to raise with The Lone Ranger as there are with even the best of films but to indict it for being cynical, insincere or formulaic seems so shortsighted.

Even if I didn’t like it so, I’d support it merely on the grounds of how much it does to buck the trend of current traditional studio fare. It is full of ambiguity and pain, its women are not incidental or damsels in distress, its leading man is not a conventional man or hero of bravura and charm, it features a Hans Zimmer score that is movie specific and special. The fact that it does so much that, unfortunately, so many similar blockbuster don't only makes the fact that it is a good movie while doing so all the more special for me, and the few that liked it.

(But, I really do wish that even those who didn't like it would appreciate why it is not completely negligible. Alas.)



"Yojimbo_5" said...

Gore Verbinski is an interesting cat-capable of making both MouseHunt and The Mexican, and more attuned to work of Buster Keaton than any contemporary film-maker...which makes his popularity with audiences rather poignant to me. I think the failure of The Lone Ranger is attributable to a) preview overload, which contributed to b) audience apathy not only for this movie, but The Lone Ranger, in general (the attempt bombed spectacularly in the 80's), and Westerns in the macro, and a Western spoof at the Universal level (see Wild, Wild West, and the Mel Gibson Maverick). I don't thank cultural sensitivity had anything to do with it as movies that are far, far worse open every weekend.

I think the audience for this movie probably waits for video, and the target audience didn't care for a Western—just like they don't care for black-and-white films.

Andrew K. said...

yojimbo the thing is it's not been a failure financially it just hasn't been a round success so it's inability to make multiple dollars coupled with the scathing reviews really make me wonder just how much goodwill he has left.

(i really like THE MEXICAN, too.)

Shane Slater said...

Totally on board with you on this one! I just reviewed it myself: