Gore Verbinski is a filmmaker I’ve never given much consideration. Until I screened Rango, his Oscar-winning animated Western featuring the neurotic vocal styling of Johnny Depp, I regarded him as little more than a high-priced director-for-hire. Say what you will about his bloated (but successful) Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, his deft touch was sorely missing from Captain Jack’s most recent adventure. There’s no doubt Verbinski has the ability to marshal a massive, special-effects laden production. But what else is he capable of? Quite a lot, it would seem. And it’s Rango that snaps his entire filmography into perspective.
Rango is the weirdest "Kids" movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a screwball Spaghetti Western that echoes Chinatown, and has a flying bat-shit sense of humour. Not all the gags stick, but enough of them hit their mark. And many of them are side-splitting bulls-eyes. Verbinski and his collaborators, John Logan and James Ward Byrkit, wisely emulate Pixar's formula. They’re concerned less about plot mechanics, and more about character, story and theme. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Johnny Depp gives his best performance in a decade, which is no small feat, considering he doesn’t even appear on-screen. The result is a quirky comedy with heart, that manages to reference Sergio Leone and Hunter S. Thomson without skipping a beat.
Rango prompted me to seek out Verbinski’s early work, so I could piece together exactly why I'd previously dismissed him. I managed to find The Ritual, a fairly accomplished short he made upon graduating from UCLA. The Ritual is Verbinski’s Rosetta Stone. It’s about Voodoo and anti-consumerism, and is inflected with chatty Tarantino-inspired Gen-X rambling. Even at this early stage, his madcap sense of humour and byzantine production design was already on full display. The morbid flights of fancy and droll humour resembles Sam Raimi and early Coens. But above all else, it’s about people embroiled in a hyper-convoluted situation, which is a theme he continues to visit.
Reflecting on Verbinski’s career, it’s clear he’s one of our most offbeat mainstream filmmakers. He’s a capable storyteller with a distinctly modern voice. His smaller films, like The Weather Man, The Mexican and The Ring, are intimate and keenly observed. They’re contemporary character-driven commentaries. And despite its Western trappings, there's nothing at all old-fashioned about Rango. Next, Verbinski and Depp will saddled up for a newfangled take on The Lone Ranger. The project may have fallen prey to production delays, budget cuts and re-writes, but don't expect that to stop Verbinski from subverting another Disney tentpole. The marketing machine will undoubtedly focus on Depp's star-power and the relentless action sequences. And while that may accurately represent the finished film, I'm almost certain The Lone Ranger won't play like your typical Hollywood blockbuster, the same way Rango isn't your typical family film.