“It is strange that you do not remember any of your poetry, William Blake.”
—Nobody (Gay Farmer), Dead Man (1995)
“I think you made a mistake, mister.” A little boy (Mason Cook) gazes up at an ancient Comanche Indian through the glass of a Wild West exhibit. It’s 1933, the kid’s wandered into the exhibit on his own, and he’s not a little surprised that the fellow labeled “The noble savage in his native habitat” is talking to him, and has, in fact, just called him “kemosabe”.
Being a Lone Ranger fan—identified by his mask and cowboy hat—the boy gets the reference, and so, after a bit more back-and-forthing, settles in to listen to a very long story as told by Tonto (Johnny Depp). As you anticipate, it’s a story of origins and endings, fictions and vague truths, beginning more or less in 1896, when a district attorney named John (Armie Hammer) is riding a train west. Dressed in a fancy suit and nodding politely to the nice Christian ladies singing hymns, square-jawed John is headed home. That is he’s headed to the still wildish town of Colby, Texas, this after years of fancifying education and the loss of his one true love, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), to his dashing Texas-ranger brother (James Badge Dale).
This chunk of background—which, by the way, can’t actually be known by Tonto, but does serve his mythologizing of the man about to become the Lone Ranger—leads slowly to the point, which the first encounter between John and Tonto. The latter, as it happens, is going west as well, not in a nice suit, but in heavily caked and apparently irremovable face paint, fringe pants, and chains as well, these linking him to the other criminal on board, the scar-faced stone killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). The arrival of Butch’s men leads not only to his escape, but also to the inevitable switch, such that Tonto and John (whom Tonto immediately calls “kemosabe”) are chained together and so are forced right away to work as a team.
This teamwork business constitutes the bulk of what follows. And in that familiar context, their interactions are exceedingly uninspired. They bicker and brawl, they reconcile and conspire. The Lone Ranger has a vengeance plot in mind, as does Tonto, and if Tonto’s is righteously motivated by genocide and theft, it’s also complicated by trauma, which in turn effects his isolation and multiply signifying madness, usually surfacing in his less than hilarious Jack Sparrowish tics and antics.
When it turns out that the Lone Ranger and Tonto also share common enemies, not only the scurvy Butch and his gang, but also the railroad magnate Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), with an eye on Rebecca, a few US military officers in his pocket, and, no surprise, a throng of Chinese coolies working under dire conditions. With precursors ranging from Mr. Potter to Captain Barbossa, Cole has little room to invent, and so he spends his time doubling down on those villainous traits you’ve seen in a hundred movie bullies and scoundrels, American Greed writ large.
That Cole is a large and frequently looming white bully, equipped with an expensive suit and weapon, only differentiates him minimally from the other white bullies in The Lone Ranger. Some of them work for him, or work for somebody who works for him, but no matter their class status, they all display the sort of smug self-confidence that’s both well-known and monstrous in American annals, fictional and historical (so much as these might be distinguished). The bullies conduct themselves badly, inexorably, whether they’re dressed up as entrepreneurs, cowboys, women or Indians. But if Butch’s crew is especially prone to dress up in actual dresses, indicating, you guess, their difference from the Lone Ranger, who wears his super-straight-man outfit throughout the film, they’re all performing like regular white guy, predictably depraved or heroic, cunning or oblivious.
As such, each white man earns, at some point, Tonto’s favorite sobriquet, “stupid white man.” On one level, it’s an obvious joke, letting white or male or both viewers feel in on the outsider’s righteous anger, even as they might also, just maybe, consider contexts for such a sentiment. On another level, it’s a slightly less obvious joke, having to do with Depp’s part in another Western, or more accurately, Jim Jarmusch’s superb deconstruction of the Western, Dead Man, in which Depp’s William Blake is befriended by the American Indian Nobody (Gary Farmer), who mutters the phrase more than once, sometimes augmented, both in this film and again in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, where Nobody appears once more, to say it once more: “Stupid fucking white man.”
Here, in Tonto’s mouth, the words are both less devastating and more dreadful. It’s not only that Tonto is again, as always, a complicated, troubling figure in American self-mythologizing, whether he’s played by Jay Silverheels on TV or by Comanche adoptee Depp, or whether the inspiration for the Lone Ranger back in the ‘30s was a black man.
It’s that all of these stories are the bits and revisions of the same story, and the most terrifying aspect of these centuries of self-mythologizing is the capacity to absorb and recycle, to own and reframe. The Lone Ranger is something like a perfect, if alarming, iteration of this process. Here again, from the moment Tonto appears in his exhibit, the white boy’s eyes wide with wonder, the limits are set. However much the boy raises questions concerning the myth’s illogic, no matter how stupid and abusive and exploitative white men can be, they endure as long as they tell stories—theirs and everyone else’s.