the story: John Reid becomes the eponymous hero.
what it's all about: Basically this is a movie that flopped at the box office for an incredibly superficial reason, and that was the immense backlash at Johnny Depp playing Tonto. For the kind of movie Lone Ranger is, the casting makes absolutely perfect sense. Depp is literally the only actor who could've pulled it off. It's quintessential Depp. But he's also not exactly Native American, so there was immense backlash.
If the casting had been accepted, Depp's Tonto would've added to his collection of signature characters. That was the whole point. His Jack Sparrow revived Depp's career, and was the first time since Edward Scissorhands where Johnny Depp Being a Character Instead of a Generic Pretty Boy really worked, and that was the whole point. So casting directors started trying Characters all over the place for him to play. Robert Rodriguez scored a coup early on in securing Depp for Once Upon a Time in Mexico soon after the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie proved such a phenomenon, and, well, Depp's role and performance in it changed the tone of the Mariachi movies Rodriguez had been making, in such a way that still defines a Rodriguez movie to this day, but didn't really itch the scratch created by Jack Sparrow. Then Depp appeared in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as an Eccentric Johnny Depp Character. But it again felt forced. And so on and so forth. Really, Depp's career always thanked him most when he was appearing as Jack Sparrow, but eventually...he had to do something else. He had to become something else.
So he became Tonto. This Tonto dominates Lone Ranger. He's the framing narrator, the unreliable narrator who's, again, perfectly cast for the story Lone Ranger is trying to tell. Ironically, this Tonto exists at all because in the years since Tonto's creation he's become less accepted as the Native American Sidekick, and now every time "kemosabe" is uttered, someone has to explain what it means. It can't just be a term of endearment. It's got to a commentary. And so when Tonto in Long Ranger explains what it means this time, it's part of a running joke that's at the heart of this version of the story. It's very much in the vein of Jack Sparrow, the character everyone used to try and explain, why he walked the way he did. Ah, and the answer's always been, because Johnny Depp created a really, really interesting performance.
So here I am, still talking about Tonto. Tonto is inescapable in this movie. Imagine what the character would be, in this context, if someone like Adam Beach had played him. And no offense to Adam Beach, but I know Adam Beach, and he's no Johnny Depp. That's part of the problem. Native Americans aren't allowed to be Johnny Depp in general, even now, decades into redefining their role in stories like this. We're still stuck in a one dimensional look at them, it just so happens that now it's supposed to be positive. But they're static, and we like it like that, and so when we say we're complaining about Johnny Depp playing Tonto we're really criticizing our inability to think of Tonto in any other way than Stoic Native American, because the actors we have? Totally incapable of playing this Tonto. Except, maybe, Graham Greene. That guy's awesome. But he's also older than Tonto ought to be.
Anyway, so Tonto's at the heart of understanding this movie. He's even at the heart of understanding why Johnny Depp's casting is so perfect, despite everything. Tonto is meant to be "a band apart," as explained, eventually, in his origin story, late in the movie, when it's explained why he became the screwy dude we see throughout the movie, why he becomes such a perfect Johnny Depp Character. He's been traumatized, and all his quirks have developed from his attempts to cope with what happened to him, what he did, when he was a boy. He's not weird for the sake of being weird. There's a honest-to-god, genuine answer for it.
And that's the rest of the movie, from the framing narration, which tries to explain what happened to Lone Ranger's legacy, both in the fictional and real worlds, and the pathos at the heart of the madness. That's the story in a nutshell, pathos at the heart of madness.
It's about a corrupt businessman (Tom Wilkinson, doing brilliantly restrained work in extreme contrast to William Fichtner's showy Butch Cavendish, whose look seems to have been the one real concession to Depp and director Gore Verbinski's Pirates past) who tricks the public into believing his lies, even though the one character who most interacts with him (Ruth Wilson, who does wounded beauty so incredibly well) thinks he's scum mostly worth shunning as much as possible, even though it's continually impossible. To watch Wilkinson at play is to know this movie has a beating heart, and knows exactly what it's doing at all times. To watch him perform under a heavy beard that makes him unrecognizable is to know that this is a production that takes seriously immersing itself in its own reality. We don't need to see Fichtner's bloody fingers as he works a loose nail free, but that's detail that rewards the viewer, that authenticates a movie that spends much of its time with, well, Tonto.
Then there's the Lone Ranger himself, Armie Hammer. Armie's, surprisingly, had it rough since his breakthrough role(s) in The Social Network. He's an actor who oozes charisma, but it's so hard to quantify, because like Depp he refuses to be just another pretty face. So it's not surprising to see the two in a movie together. Where Depp's instinct has always been to bury his looks under a gauzy character, Armie simply rejects expectations. He looks like the classic leading man, but he's not afraid to make a fool of himself.
Tonto is constantly complaining that the wrong brother survived. The other brother is James Badge Dale, another actor who inexplicably finds it difficult to be appreciated. He embodies the hero as the hero is supposed to be, in Lone Ranger, and makes an early exit. Dale's biggest problem is that he commits so thoroughly to his roles that he doesn't mind taking the backseat. His squinty eyes say he's a clever guy, but the rest of his performance says he'll hide the best of his work behind everyone else's. It's not that he can't command a scene (my first and favorite experience with him to date is a glorified cameo in Flight, where his character is literally named Gaunt Young Man in the credits, where he absolutely dominates a scene with Denzel Washington), but that he never has a role big enough to fit his talent.
So the brother is so heroically competent that Armie's Lone Ranger is stuffed ideals that are always comically backfiring on him, so that he can never live up to him. That's this movie's version of the character, a thorough deconstruction calculated for cynical audiences who maybe don't trust Westerns as a source of popular modern entertainment, but somehow ending up rejected...because of that? Because it didn't take itself seriously enough?
Again, only if you're looking only at the surface, and this is a movie with a lot of moving pieces, that's endlessly rewarding, that throws supporting stars at you without warning (Helena Bonham Carter! Barry Pepper! Stephen Root!), seemingly at random and with no regard to their narrative impact. But it's all calculated. Brilliantly. The way Wilkinson's character thinks he's got all the angles figured out. The way even Tonto believes he's got everything figured out. Certainly the way the Lone Ranger thinks he does. Before he puts on the mask.
This is a story about why good men must wear masks, why the heroes aren't happy being paraded before the public, why even when the narrator is unreliable he's telling the honest-to-god unvarnished truth (even about that stupid bird on his head). It contradicts basically every common conclusion about this sort of storytelling. It's more clever than any of Depp and Verbinski's Pirates movies (even if they could be quite rousing and affecting). It knows it's retelling a classic Hollywood story, one of the stories that made Hollywood, the Western at its zenith, as myth.
And yeah, it features a classic Johnny Depp performance. Don't believe what you've heard. Watch it for yourself. You'll feel its magic for yourself.