Suspension of disbelief is a lost art among today’s moviegoers. Even in fantasy and adventure films, modern audiences scrutinize each scene with a taste for verisimilitude (the appearance of being real). And, sadly, this is the extent of their critical engagement. Deeper themes and messages are lost in the confusion of taste for artistic merit. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger fell prey to such an audience upon its release. The film is criticized for being too unbelievable when ironically its message is a warning against slavish adherence to realism.
Many complain about the film’s narrative structure. An aging Tonto tells the story of the Lone Ranger to a child in a 1933 San Francisco fairground. The young boy interrupts often, and young Tonto in the story breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge him. Realism audiences become nervous when unsure of what to believe. They want narrative authority. In the end Tonto’s story makes sense with the convergence of plot points, but details like the peanut bag (the boy gives it to old Tonto for young Tonto to later place in the grave of a ranger) emphasize that the main story truly is Tonto’s account and not an objective flashback of events.
And the theme of fantasy versus reality doesn’t stop there. Tonto, as a child, decides the white man who slaughtered his people is a wendigo, and he dedicates his life to finding justice. He is guided by visions and “the great father’s” plan, yet he is aware of his delusional state (he hopes the sound of the approaching scorpions is just another sound in his head). When he finally achieves his goal, he tells the murderer of his people “All these years I think you are wendigo, but no, you are just another white man.” The details of his belief weren’t important. The truth was in the strength of his faith and the destiny it gave him.
Likewise John Reid is guided, from convenience at first, by Tonto’s assertion that Reid is a spirit walker, one granted special powers for having been to the other side and back. After the disillusionment of his own faith in government to provide justice and correct its own corruption, he adopts Tonto’s outlandish perception in sincerity. “I am the spirit walker,” he affirms before attempting to shoot the gun from a villain’s hand on a faraway train. “I can’t miss.” And he doesn’t.
The story requires suspension of disbelief, perhaps most of all in the heroic and climactic battle on the trains. This requirement is nothing new for heroic adventure films, but The Lone Ranger’s audience complained that John Reid, who’d been away at law school in the east and hadn’t fired a gun in nine years was somehow still able to ride and use a whip and pistol effectively. Tonto’s heroics, too, appear effortless, as after stealing the train, he simply acts by providence, throwing silver that happens to lie next to him, using a ladder that miraculously lands him safely on a another train before shattering, and so on.
“How unbelievable! How unrealistic!” audiences cry. Tonto and The Lone Ranger become successful heroes merely from having faith in their destinies! They have certain skills, of course, but only when they acknowledge their individual responsibilities does fate propel them forward. Tonto sets out to atone for leading the white men to the silver near his tribe, and John Reid stops waiting for justice from a corrupt system and begins to enforce it himself. The film’s message isn’t that we should hunt wendigos or become masked vigilantes. The message is that how society sees us doesn’t matter, nor does how realistic it sees our chances or how useful our abilities. What is important is how we see ourselves. And when we couple that acknowledgment of individual talent and responsibility with a belief in something greater (be it justice, the Great Father’s plan, or whatever), our destinies will find a way.
The Lone Ranger isn’t a film for everyone, just as hero stories aren’t for everyone. They require faith in the universality of their metaphor. Our response to them is based on a willingness to see ourselves as heroes. They ask each of us how we see our place and purpose in the world. As though anticipating its own critique from an incurably realist society, The Lone Ranger ends with the young boy asking Tonto, “So, the wendigo, nature out of balance, the masked man, it’s just a story right? I mean, I know he’s not real, was he?”
Tonto looks down with a smile and replies, “Up to you.”