“Man was born in the desert…returning to the desert, he discovers himself.”
—Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
The ocean of sand that seems to stretch forever; yellow waves rolling off in every direction. The cacti standing tall and spartan, the only survivors in a barren expanse. Animal bones bleached perfect white by a scorching sun that glares unbearably down, making the sand sparkle, the air waver, and the horizon blur.
We recognize the desert when we see it on screen the same way we recognize the city at night, the dusky bar, the jungle, or a galaxy far, far away. There might be a subtitle or an expository line to inform us of the exact geography of our new location but, usually, we don’t really need it. As Ishmael says, the real places are not on any maps: they exist already in our minds, the backdrops to countless tales we’ve heard before. We recognize them as easily as the good guy in the white hat, the femme fatale in the red dress, the villain chomping on his cigar. They’re a part of our shared imagination, the communal terrain in which our stories take place.
Rune Graulund’s entry to the Routledge Companion to Travel Writing argues that “the image of the weary desert traveler suffering under a harsh and relentless sun has become a stock trope of the Western collective unconscious.” And because of this, when Rango wanders out into the desert, we know exactly where he is.
Gore Verbinski’s 2011 film is a madcap melange of cinematic references, cutting out a space in the middle of the desert and filling it with pieces of other movies that had been left to go halfway insane under the boiling sun. The story begins with Rango being thrown from a life of comfort and familiarity, shorn of his earthly possessions and sent to wander in the sand. His immediate goals are simply to survive this red-rocked wasteland and to find a glass of water. His ultimate quest, though, is to find out who he is. Trudging forward in an arduous journey of self-discovery, Rango’s story is a desert pilgrimage.
The idea that some great truth might be obtainable through wandering into the desert’s abyss is one which has graced our screens and stories countless times in the past. Religious texts tell tales of holy men wandering the desert in search of enlightenment. Robyn Davidson tramped through the Australian outback with her camels in the hope of finding something out about herself. (Jenny Agutter went Walkabout there too, though much less voluntarily.) In other cases, the desert is only imagined: a place the character hallucinates themselves into, only to uncover truths that have been lurking in their subconscious. Sometimes it’s a hazy mixture of the two, like Keira Knightley stranded in Domino’s desert and gaining wisdom from a vision of Tom Waits, that mad piano poet who always seems half-hallucinated. The “Desert Satori”—the epiphany amidst the arid emptiness—is a concept familiar enough to us by now for Homer Simpson to have gained self-knowledge amidst the endless sand from a coyote who sounds like Johnny Cash.
We go out into to a place where there is nothing, hoping to find something. All that blankness acts as space to be filled: some see it as the playground of spirits and forces beyond our physical reality, others as a place where the things that have seeped into our unconscious mind can burst forward and take form. Maybe these ideas are not so far apart, just literal and figurative forms of the same thought. Either way, it is this notion of the desert which Rango taps into.
In her acclaimed ode to walking, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes a pilgrimage as a “state of possibility.” It acts as a chance to shed your past self and become someone new, in a place where there is nothing and no-one to tie you to your previous identity. Rango’s past life was characterized by his desperate attempts to find a role to play in an environment which gave him nothing to play off. Right before he is thrown out into the wilderness, he realizes this quandary in a winkingly meta epiphany that sets the tone for the rest of the film:
“The hero cannot exist in a vacuum! What our story needs is an ironic, unexpected event that will propel the hero into conflict!”
It is only in this fluid, sun-dazed space that a film like Rango can make sense. The desert’s arid expanse makes a fertile setting for these identity quests because it is synonymous with a kind of loosening of reality. It is as close to nowhere as a person can be. The scorching heat blurs the world into a haze of mirages and uncertain sights—sand that glitters like water, cacti that loom like the outlines of helpful strangers. It beats down on the brain and softens the mind. After a while, it’s impossible to tell what is real and what is only imagined, thus everything transpires with an equal reality. Breaking Bad’s desert-adjacent New Mexico location allowed for more than just the plot convenience of a place to cook meth without interruption; sun and solitude combine to produce a more flexible reality, allowing Heisenberg’s world to slip back and forth between realism and absurdity.
Rango is jettisoned into the desert after an armadillo with a philosophical outlook causes the car containing his tank to swerve violently, throwing his glass abode from its place of safety and out onto the highway, where it shatters. On the armadillo’s advice, he accepts the loss of his old life and strikes out into the desert, in the direction of a town called Dirt.
During the vehicular calamity which sends Rango flying, the camera lingers on two men tearing down the road in a bright red sports car; the driver decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, fisherman’s hat and shades, his heavy-set companion sprawled back in the seat behind. Hunter S. Thompson and his Gonzo lawyer crashing through a movie starring Johnny Depp seems, at a glance, like a simple bit of pop cultural humor, one of those “for the parents” jokes that DreamWorks and co. like to sneak into their family films. However, as the film continues, references to actors, characters, films, and famous scenes continue to filter through, in a manner which achieves more than just providing some laughs for the accompanying parents: it creates the impression of a place where the membrane between reality and fiction is a little porous. If the desert is a place where imagined things find physical shape, it’s no surprise really to see Thompson—whose prose was built out of a hallucinatory blur of autobiography, invention, and a paranoid inability to distinguish between the two—come howling through in his most recognizable form. The things that are said to wander in the desert are often drawn from folk tales and local legends. In Rango, they are phantoms from other films.
Though it is never explicitly confirmed, it is easy to imagine that Rango’s tank has been placed in view of a TV set, and that much of his life prior to the film’s opening has been spent glued to it. Like many of us, Rango has been raised with movies as his folklore: providing the stories which explain the world to him by making it a little simpler, offering a clear cast of heroes and villains, a code of honor to live by. As a result, Rango spends his days acting out its archetypes, becoming in turn the swashbuckling hero, the irresistible charmer and, later, the mysterious gunslinger. In the film’s opening scene, he questions his own identity while drawing a box into the condensation on the side of his tank, framing himself inside an imagined screen as he wonders what his role in life should be. We see him caught inside a rectangular frame two more times in the film: the first time he takes on his Wild West identity, and the final time he doubts his ability to fulfill it. The framing positions him as the figure on a screen, the center of the shot, the star of the show. As it does so, we can see him wondering: if my life is a story, what role am I playing? Every time Rango feels unsure about who he is, he looks at himself through the lens of a camera and uses the touchstones of movie mythology to locate himself.
When Rango first arrives in Dirt, he encounters a town torn straight from a classic Western—nothing but dirt roads, jangling spurs, six-shooters, and 10-gallon hats as far as the eye can see. Desperately thirsty from his journey, he stumbles in to the nearest saloon and pushes open the swing doors to reveal a scene of pure Western bedlam: a collage of disgruntled and disfigured characters sneering across card games, swaying drunkenly and throwing punches while an old timer in the corner hammers out a jaunty tune on the piano. When the doors swing open to reveal an outsider, the whole room freezes in deathly silence as they size him up.
It is a scene we know so well that we can recite it beat for beat. The moment those doors swing open and the hush falls, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt what kind of movie Rango has wandered in to.
This familiarity becomes important because, even without its meta elements, Rango‘s world can be a hard one to get a handle on. When we first see Rango, it seems like the standard rules of any anthropomorphic animal cartoon apply. He wears clothes (often in Donald Duck’s favored “shirt-only” style), walks upright, speaks English and makes pop culture-laden quips. But once he encounters the residents of Dirt, the rules become less clear. The townsfolk are a mixture of humanoid animals but, while some are distinguishable as certain species the way Rango is, others are highly ambiguous. They are all roughly the same size, from the tortoise mayor to the rabbit doctor to the various rodent-ish things, but are all dwarfed by the villainous hawk and the outlaw Rattlesnake Jake.
Rango‘s world never quite tells us its rules but it never has to because it is based so firmly in a Wild West realm that we’re already familiar with. By picking a setting which holds such a strong presence in an audience’s imagination, the film is then free to play fast and loose with the details. The audience is so familiar with the destination that there is never any danger of losing them, no matter how many strange twists or turns the movie takes.
Other pieces of Hollywood lore continue to filter through into Rango’s reality, both from Westerns and various other parts of the cinematic universe. The villainous Mayor, a decrepit tortoise with a plan to steal the town’s water, is Chinatown‘s Noah Cross in reptilian form. The little girl who stares up at Rango with wide-eyes, pig tails and a pair of pistols seems to have crossed over from True Grit. A “run on the bank” occurs in pitch perfect imitation of It’s a Wonderful Life, while an evil hawk is crushed beneath a water tower with its feet protruding like another West’s Wicked Witch. Moles rise from underneath the ground in time-honored zombie fashion, thrusting one grasping hand upwards through the soil and dragging themselves up. They saddle up a colony of bats and take to the skies while blaring “Rise of the Valkyries,” à la Apocalypse Now. The combined effect of all these references is to create a world in which other movies are refracted in the desert’s emptiness, a place which sits right on the border between real and imagined, the boundary blurred by the baking sun.
This idea is reinforced by the film’s use of narration. Provided by a quartet of mariachi owls, the plot is bookended and interspersed by their grave predictions of our hero’s fate. While they speak straight through the fourth wall to tell the audience Rango’s story, they also interact with the hero himself on a couple of occasions, like when Rango cues them to begin playing as he prepares to ride out, conducting the soundtrack to his own movie from within. Providing music that is both diegetic and not, the owls act as envoys between the two sides of the screen, helping to create a realm in which the real world of actors and artists coexists with their creations.
While the same effect might have been achieved by situating the story in a clear film noir or World War II setting, the film’s desert world has a certain appropriateness for the ideas of identity and reality it wants to play with. The legacy of America’s Frontier is that of a place in which a fresh start was possible for everyone. The new nation offered a sprawling empty page on which you could write yourself a new identity, no longer blotted by your past mistakes or the circumstances of your birth. Your old life could be left behind, the new one yours to create. This romantic conception of the West has been made real to us by decades of stories that have popularized it far beyond the time’s historical reality. With its infinite possibilities for self re-invention, it’s the perfect setting for a lost soul like Rango.
The Dirtonians treat the Western mythos like a religion, linking hands in prayer to the “Spirit of the West” to guide them in their time of need. Mentions of this mythical figure echo through the film from its first moments, with the armadillo describing his “alabaster carriage” and “golden guardians.” When Rango finally meets him, in a scene that somehow feels even dreamier than the rest of the movie, the reveal feels enjoyably inevitable. Stiff-jawed and poncho clad, he is unmistakable as the iconic character Clint Eastwood played in numerous Spaghetti Westerns. He is The Man with No Name, the perpetual outsider sometimes known as Blondie, sometimes known as nothing at all. He embodies the Frontier myth by arriving in each tale fully formed as a picture of toughness, self-reliance, and honor. He seems to have no home and no past, wandering freely between different towns and different movies, the same yet different, like reincarnations of the same holy figure.
The twist is that he stands before Rango not spinning a pistol or riding a horse, but driving golf balls into the desert’s dunes, a cluster of Oscars gleaming from the back of his pearly white golf cart. He is both The Man with No Name and the man that played him, two layers of reality folded into one to create something that feels real and yet just a little off. He is the personification of the film’s dreamlike world in which fact and fiction collide, a blurry composite of two of Hollywood’s most iconic figures.
In another scene cribbed from classic movie moments, Rango and Beans, his love interest, sit up beneath the starlight after everyone else has fallen asleep and grow closer by sharing stories from their childhoods. She tells him about the Spanish Daggers or “walkin’ cactus” and the legend that they crawl slowly across the desert in search of water. She tells him about how she would watch them every night when she was a child, hoping they could lead her to a place where everyone would have enough to drink. When she admits she has never seen them move in all these years, Rango asks why she keeps watching. “Who doesn’t wanna find someplace wonderful?” she replies.
It is in this moment, one of the movie’s quietest, where the film truly shows its hand. Beneath the torrent of film references, fourth wall-breaks, and mescaline-soaked weirdness of its entire world, Rango is a story about stories, and why we need them.
As long as there have been people to tell them, there have been tales of Promised Lands, places where there would be less suffering and more joy. “People have to believe in something” Rango is told. The movies offer us glimpses of worlds inhabited by magical creatures, superpowers, and spaceships. More than that, they show us worlds in which kindness conquers greed, where the good guy is good and right means more than might. No matter how far these places might seem from our own world, part of the reason we keep watching is the same reason Beans’ can’t take her eyes from the desert’s Spanish Daggers. We want to find someplace wonderful, even if it’s gone once the lights come back on.
Rango is the story of someone who kept watching and used what he saw to try and make it true. As Rango stares into the saloon’s crooked mirror, he knows exactly who to be. He chews a match, dons a hat and begins to strut with the wide gait of a true gunslinger. And, just like that, he becomes a hero.