Please enjoy this guest contribution from my Father, Bill Faris. Bill is a Pastor, Pastoral Counselor, and all around Renaissance Man. You can see more of what he's up to by clicking here.
A SILVER BULLET NEVER FIRED
The “human element”: it’s what makes a movie more than a series of car crashes, mad dashes from danger, romantic interludes, and other goings-on that carry us away until the Big Finish lets us walk back into the night air. The human element puts us behind the makeup and inside the costumes to encounter the character’s head and heart. It is the human element, and not merely “special effects” that truly rivet us to the screen. It is a film’s people that make it compelling: their hopes, dreams, visions, struggles, conflicts, courage, wisdom, tears, smiles, tests and victories (or failures!). The human element makes the kiss magical, the leap from the bridge breathtaking, and the comic interlude, well, comic. And, amazingly, it is the human element that escaped the reach of the purported $250 million budget in the bloated epic that is The Lone Ranger.
This Ranger is the spectacle imagined by Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Director Gore Verbinski – the power duo who brought us The Pirates of the Caribbean series. Of course, Johnny Depp (also listed as an Executive Producer) shows up as the famed Indian sidekick, Tonto. The famed “Lone Ranger”, in this case, is played by the terrifically unremarkable and totally inconsequential Armie Hammer. Along for the ride is the usually impressive Tom Wilkinson who, thanks to a vacuous script, struggles in vain to find some complexity in a poorly-drawn Railroad Baron bad guy named Cole. Ruth Wilson plays Rebecca Reid, the faint love interest and Helen Bonham Carter shows up as the Madam With a Heart (and most unusual leg), Red Harrington.
As a viewer, I wasn't expecting Gone With the Wind. However, my enjoyment of the Pirates of the Caribbean films led me to hope for at least something along the lines of one of the lesser examples of that franchise. On the plus side, the film looks good. We would expect this from a huge budget and the Bruckheimer/Verbinski partnership. The script, however, is a mess. I admit I was teased on the front end of things by a beginning that recalled the unique charm of Little Big Man. "Okay”, I said to myself. “This is kind of a cute little setup". But that was before everything steadily devolved into a zig-zag series of caricatures.
The parade of cardboard cutouts included mindless Indian slaughterers Cavalry riders led by a Captain who looks a lot like General Custer. “Cole” and the other Big Business Boys (read R.R. moguls) are wholly corrupt nothings with absolutely no complexity of motivation. Other clichéd community members include totally starched and completely dippy religious people, the aforementioned “Madam Who Makes Good”, a whole tribe of wholly-noble (practically saintly) double-crossed Indians, the young-boy-forced-to-grow-up-ahead-of-his-time, and a gaggle of ruthlessly exploited Chinese coolies whose main purpose seems to be to agree with the Noble Indians about how stupidly sick all the White Folks are. And, speaking of sick, it will be a long time before you see someone as truly sick-o as the main bad guy, Butch Cavendish, played by actor William Fichtner. All that was missing in his case was a nice Chianti and an old west can of Fava Beans!
The stunts, while impressive, were positively Keystone Cops – which, in a Lone Ranger flick is not necessarily a bad thing. There was, however, a lot of screen time given to these goings on and they only occasionally advanced or resolved story elements. Some of the weightier themes lurking around the edge of the story such as "love", "justice", "law and order", "progress", "faith", and even "revenge" were thrown around like paper airplanes without any real development.
Part of the problem with all this lies with Armie Hammer’s portrayal of the Title Character. He should make us feel something about his conflicts, his confusion, and any legitimate loathing he might have burning inside for the evil scum (Cavendish) who ruthlessly harmed his older brother while he sneaked a peek. But not so much. Instead of something as emotionally recognizable as fear, hatred, or even inspiration to right life’s wrongs, we are presented with a paper mache' Ranger who spends a lot of screen time expressing annoyance with his sidekick, Tonto. And speaking of Tonto, we viewers keep trying to find something truly Native American beneath Johnny Depp’s layers of face paint, crow headpiece, and pidgin English – but it ain’t easy. Thanks to some flash forward and flashback scenes we are given at least some idea of Tonto’s backstory. Even so, the human cues for our two main characters are truly few and far between and, as a result, we are hard pressed to really care about them.
Some of us will, no doubt, be distracted by the way the movie plays fast and loose with place and time. Monument Valley seems to have been reimagined as someplace in Texas and the grandly historic achievement of uniting the country by rail at Promontory Point, Utah is jerked out of all historic context to simply become another plot point. This is problematic to anyone who is even a little sensitive to history. As a railfan, I enjoyed watching the scenes that featured period-correct steam locomotives belching out smoke and speeding down the tracks of the wild, wild West. Why, then, would they disrupt things by portraying the young Reid boy playing with a modern H.O. model train set only thinly disguised by what appears to be a steampunk version of a model train transformer? Alas…
I realize all films of this kind ask us to suspend disbelief. It’s what makes them fantastical and fancy free! I had no problem doing so (most of the time) while watching Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, or even 3:10 to Yuma. It’s not that the rules of the alternative world of the film must be "real" when compared to our own world. They must, however, be consistent within their own context. For me, the lack of consistency in The Lone Ranger left me feeling that the scriptwriters and production team were just sloppy; and this is a shame because I believe there is a truly good movie hiding somewhere in the legend of the Lone Ranger and Tonto but, for me, this was certainly not it.
A couple weeks before viewing The Lone Ranger, my son and I watched Man of Steel on the big screen. In both cases, I went in asking only for two hours or so of escapist fun. I feel I got that with Man of Steel. By contrast, The Lone Ranger simply made me work too hard to overcome its plentiful shortcomings and I left the theater feeling flat. To me, when a production costs something like $250 million to deliver, “flat” is not the feeling I am looking for.