Tumbleweeds at the Box Office

At the end of every December, I’m used to someone asking me what the best film of the year was, because I’m known as the guy who watches shitloads of movies. This is always a hard question to answer, because by the end of any given year I haven’t seen all of the noteworthy movies that came out over the past twelve months. In fact, it will probably take me a few more years to be able to speak definitively on said given year. By now, I feel I might have the authority to weigh in on the best of 2010. I may be pretty solid on 2011. But I doubt I’m fully qualified to eulogize the year 2012 yet, and 2013 is out of the question. Hell, I haven’t even been out to take a look at the second part of The Hobbit. Sure I’ve seen more than most people, but there remain plenty of titles to catch up on.

“What’s the best western this year?”

That was a question I was asked only two days ago. And it was such a specific, narrow question, I had to respond right away. I felt I was qualified to answer this one.

“The Lone Ranger.”

Amidst the laughter: “It was that bad a year for westerns?”

Yes it was. And no it wasn’t.

The Lone Ranger earned this year’s epitaph of “Biggest Box Office Bomb.” And it was hardly surprising. The Lone Ranger has had his day. Starting as a radio show in 1933, the character has been played out. He was a hero once upon a time, harking back to more innocent times, but today appears corny and sentimental. Catch phrases and theme music remain recognizable clichés, but are rapidly fading from the collective cultural memory. This is no longer a franchise brand name that will pack in an audience. Today’s target audience doesn’t know who The Lone Ranger or Tonto is and has no Lone Ranger movie or TV show from their childhood to draw them to the theatre through nostalgic manipulation.

There have been other attempts to dust off the white hat and the black mask. The Legend of the Lone Ranger flopped in 1981, as did a TV movie/attempted pilot in 2003. Not taking the hint, Hollywood took yet another stab at it this year, hedging its bets with much of the creative force behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, including Johnny Depp as Tonto, and a budget and marketing campaign in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The results were disastrous, nobody turned out to see it, and those few who did hated it.

At least, that’s the perception. The reality is a little more complicated.

First off, the film has earned more than 260 million dollars worldwide so far. That’s a lot of bums-in-seats, each of them holding a freshly purchased ticket. In the mad accounting world of contemporary Hollywood, however, this qualifies as a bomb, because the film cost 225 to 250 million to make (nobody even knows for sure because, hey, what’s 25 million more or less, right?), plus another 150 million to market. We’re still in the early days of its DVD release, and it’s barely begun making the rounds of cable TV outlets. Given enough time to accumulate future rental fees and international television broadcast sales, The Lone Ranger might yet break even or turn a small profit. But the perception of it being a bomb will never change (just like Waterworld which, a generation later, is still synonymous with “bloated Hollywood bomb” despite having been in profit for many years now).

But the real question is: is the movie any damn good?

Well, no. And yes.

Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, and pretty much everyone else involved in the production down to the caterers have all come out and said it’s a misunderstood classic that will be embraced in future years by new viewers giving it a fresh look. They are, of course, wrong. But I understand why they think this, because they were really trying to make a good movie (as opposed to a cynical cash-grab with a name-brand sure thing). And they didn’t entirely fuck it up. Chip away at all the excess and gobs of money and overblown CGI-laden action sequences and you’ll find, lying somewhere beneath the muddled surface, the best possible Lone Ranger movie we’re ever likely to see given the hackneyed concept.

It’s Little Big Man with better old-man makeup, I quipped after my screening. And I wasn’t really joking. The whole movie is told through the eyes of an old, decrepit Tonto – a character who is probably senile at this point, and is certainly (as the rest of the movie testifies) insane. Thus, if everything that follows falls under the “unreliable narrator” literary device, all the crazy shit that unfolds (bad CGI included) is forgivable. It’s rendered acceptable for being how a demented character misremembers the details of his own life.

This jumbled Photoshop nightmare fails as an advertisement, but does convey the busy mess of the film it promotes. Does it represent the story being told, or the crazed ramblings of a mad Indian?

This jumbled Photoshop nightmare fails as an advertisement, but succeeds in conveying the busy mess of the film it promotes. Does it represent the story being told, or the ramblings of a mad Indian?

What ensues in this crazed flashback is a mishmash of aboriginal mysticism, silly action sequences, and a movie that makes the traditional hero the sidekick, and the sidekick the stealth protagonist (a trick you may remember from Big Trouble in Little China – which is an apt movie comparison on several other levels as well). Fun and games and wholesome family entertainment follows – with lots of violence, cannibalism and genocide thrown in for good measure. It’s not so much that the movie can’t pick a tone, it’s that it wants to do a bit of everything and just runs with it.

One explanation we’re given for where Tonto’s head is at in the film is, “His mind is broken.” So is the rest of the movie. Yet both keep moving forward with a dogged determination to see their disorder through to the finish.

So yeah, I guess I kinda liked it. And I’ll still call it the best western of the year, even though there were one or two other entries in the genre worth mentioning. But man, pickings are slim.

Westerns have had a rough time in recent decades. The genre has been declared dead more often than Rasputin. What started as a glut throughout the first sixty years of cinema has tapered off to a few meagre offerings here and there. Occasionally something happens to revitalize the genre, like the spaghetti-western revolution of the 1960s, or the low-key gritty realism Unforgiven brought to the table. But between rare major releases and the occasional indie gem, the modern western wanders lost in the plains. Sometimes a misguided project tries to revitalize the old tropes by adding something to the mix – like vampires or aliens – usually with terrible results. It’s like they’re trying too hard to make people like a genre that’s fallen out of favour, rather than let the western be what it needs to be.

“But I don’t like westerns,” is a lament I often hear.

If you say you don’t like westerns, you might as well say you don’t like stories. Because all a western is, is a time and a place. Once you get past that fact, you can tell any story you care to whatsoever. The big sky is the limit. Even the location and period can be fudged and still have the end result be called a western (witness Lonely Are the Brave, set in its release-date time period of 1962, or Quigley Down Under, which relocated all the familiar trappings to Australia).

Although you can safely declare the chances of a Lone Ranger sequel dead on arrival, the American (and sometimes European) western remains a viable engine that will continue to draw talented writers and directors to try their hand at it. How many investors and moneymen it draws in future is another matter. The damage a 400 million dollar perceived failure causes will ripple for years. Don’t expect any giant-budget westerns to be greenlit for a long time.

Luckily, the best westerns tend to be the product of modest budgets. I hope to have a better answer at the end of 2014 should someone ask me again, “What was the best western this year?”

Sweetwater gets honourable mention for being the most nihilistic western of the year. NB: This one was shot, with a cast of names, for only seven million. It probably didn’t make its money back either.

Sweetwater gets honourable mention for being the most nihilistic western of the year. NB: This one was shot, with a cast of names, for only seven million. It probably didn’t make its money back either.

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