In interviews, Depp has insisted he sees his characterization as an attempt to “right the wrongs of the past” or “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” But the trouble with the character, as it’s played in the film, is that it’s so totally muddled. Depp is undoubtedly the star of the film, and (title notwithstanding), Tonto is the focal character: he’s first glimpsed in elderly form, as a literal museum exhibit, branded “The Noble Savage” before coming to life to tell his story to a little boy in a Lone Ranger mask (and yes, this framing device is as stupid as it sounds, an ill-conceived wraparound that merely suggests the screenwriters rented Little Big Man somewhere along the line).
Tonto, as played by Depp, is a collection of mannerisms and affectations, but not a character. He maintains the most culturally damaging element of the role, his definite article-free dialogue, with lines like, “Do not touch rock. Rock cursed.” But to offset that, he’s made the brains of the duo, the brilliant tracker and wise man, in order to do all that saluting and wrong-righting that Depp envisioned. But this is also a Disney summer tentpole flick, aimed to entertain, so laughs must be garnered by also making Tonto a standard-issue Depp buffoon in the Captain Jack mold — or, more accurately, in the style of Depp fave Buster Keaton, whose comic Western The General is all but remade in the film’s climax.
So, which is he? A broad stereotype, a noble shaman, or a comic charlatan? Depp doesn’t know; he’s a gifted performer but an undisciplined one, and Verbinski isn’t much for laser focus either, as the 149-minute running time makes clear. This is an actor who Disney is paying, as he has said, “stupid money,” so when he sees a white artist’s painting of an imaginary Native American and decides that’s how Tonto’s gonna look, well then, that’s how Tonto looks.
But the problem with The Lone Ranger — aside from it being lumbering, overlong, unfunny, and frequently dull — is that its script is no less confused about how to represent Native Americans than Depp is. They’ll dramatize a violent, terrifying Comanche raid, and exploit all of that loaded imagery, as long as it turns out that the “Indians” were actually masquerading white thugs. They’ll create a Tonto who “trades” feathers for the rings off a dead man’s fingers, as long as he’s given a sentimental backstory. And then they’ll send out their marquee leading man to explain how he’s pretending to be a Native American to “give some hope to kids on the reservations. They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘Fuck that! You’re still warriors, man.’”
But the question remains: why bother? The fact is, sometimes time passes, and cultural norms change, and certain characters or tropes or texts just become too antiquated. The Lone Ranger left this viewer with a feeling weirdly similar to the aftertaste of Michael Radford’s 2004 Merchant of Venice (the Pacino one): like maybe we just don’t need to tell this story anymore, since it — though a classic, and an important piece of literature, etc. etc. — is deeply, unavoidably, problematically anti-Semitic. And the makers of The Lone Ranger find themselves in a similar conundrum, left twisting their narrative into pretzels in order to balance out the inexorably stereotypical nature of what is now its primary character. You can’t help but wonder why Depp and Verbinski didn’t just say to hell with this mythology, and start fresh with the Butch-and-Sundance-runaway-train-Western they so clearly wanted to do instead.