Monday, February 10, 2014

The dark heart of Disney’s The Lone Ranger

This post contains spoilers...
I wasn't prepared for The Lone Ranger. The trailers made it look like an enjoyable romp through the old West, with derring do, gunfights, wisecracks, chases along train carriages and so on. It had all that, it’s true, plus Johnny Depp on brilliant form. But there was an unexpected darkness at the heart of the film.

I wasn't expecting a scene of cannibalistic murder committed by an outlaw. Or the wholesale slaughter of Comanche warriors under the rattling clacks of Gatling guns. These were interspersed with moments of levity that felt inappropriate.

As the Indians are massacred by machine guns, Tonto and the Lone Ranger are stuck on a pump truck being gained on by a train – a scene that is comic in itself, especially for the way the characters interact. However, juxtaposed as it was with the scenes of one-sided warfare, it felt wrong to be laughing at the main characters’ predicament.

Similarly the murderous villainy of the leader of the outlaw gang, Butch Cavendish. In the past it would only be necessary for him to line his pistol with the forehead of the mortally wounded Texas Ranger that he kills, and pull the trigger. The report of the pistol would be enough, with maybe a view of the corpse to establish that he is definitely dead.

Considering this was released by Disney, with toys in the Disney store (and a large Lego tie-in range as well), to have Cavendish finish off his Ranger victim by cutting out his heart and eating it was fairly horrific. Admittedly most of this happens off-screen, but he is handed a napkin by one of his goons afterwards to wipe away the blood from his mouth.

I’m not necessarily against extreme violence. I watched Dredd and the two Kill Bill films and despite the violence being brutal, appreciated the merit of including it. There was no merit to including this scene in The Lone Ranger. It didn't add to the drama. Seeing his brother executed at close range by a bullet to the head would have been enough to make Dan Reid seek understandable vengeance as The Lone Ranger.

Equally, it messed up the rest of the story, as we connect the dots between the outlaw leader and the other villains of the piece. Despite being the kind of guy who eats a lawman’s heart, Cavendish is quickly incorporated into the entourage of a bigger enemy, and from then on seems a lot less menacing.

Outside the law he is wild and savage, but it’s hard to take him seriously when he is supposed to be part of a bigger plan. It just doesn't work. He is too far gone down the path of brutality to be relied on by an intelligent criminal. And that’s a shame, because the link between Cavendish and his partners and Tonto pulls the film together well.

So, what is left in the film? The chase sequence at the end is brilliantly ludicrous and convoluted and highly enjoyable. Unfortunately, this only served to highlight how darkly drawn the preceding almost two hours had been. Helena Bonham Carter is woefully under-used but is pure comic joy when she is on-screen. The landscapes are gorgeous, shot mainly in Utah among the sandstone mesas and canyons that I fell in love with when I went there. (In fact, point worth noting, this wasn't filmed in Texas at all!)

The film also asks plenty of interesting questions, particularly in its portrayal of the Cavalry. The use of Government military strength to back up the expansionist plans of industry against the natural inhabitants of the land has parallels with the oil-grabs in Iraq following the US-led invasion. The ethical questions surrounding the decimation of the indigenous peoples by 'civilisation' aren't answered here, but they are at least asked.

The opening device and introduction of Tonto as one of history’s most unreliable narrators is a nice touch as well. The opening scene is set in 1933 when these events have already passed into history, folklore and legend, and that’s clever because it legitimises these events as having a factual basis.

The Lone Ranger is considered a bit of a flop by Disney’s standards. It’s not hard to see why. It’s clearly unsuitable for children. It’s long – with a running time of 143 minutes. And it only really comes alive with the chase sequence at the end. Bits of it were very enjoyable, but it was too bleak in places and never really answered its own moral questions.

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