Gore Verbinski’s Rango, starring Johnny Depp, is a very strange and uneven film. On the surface, it’s weird and creative, but at its core it follows a fairly strict and by-the-numbers formula, with mostly pretty flat characters living in the service of the jokes. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, and it’s become something of a cult classic, but I’d call it pretty solidly middle-of-the-road.
However, it does have some great moments, and at least one great scene: the introduction of Rattlesnake Jake.
To give you a brief summary of the plot so you can follow the scene; Rango is about a pet chameleon whose terrarium falls out of the back of a car in the Mojave Desert, where he eventually wanders into a small western town. There, by a combination of bravado, luck, and improvisation, he convinces the people that he’s a dangerous gunslinger, accidentally kills the hawk that’s been terrorizing the town, and is consequently made sheriff. In that capacity he takes it upon himself to investigate the theft of the town’s water supply.
About the end of the second act, the corrupt mayor (who is behind the scheme, and I don’t think that really counts as a spoiler since, of course he is) decides that Rango’s gotten to be too much of a problem and calls in the dreaded gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by the great Bill Nighy). Jake’s been an unseen presence throughout the film, several characters having referred to him as the killer of their previous sheriff (whose tombstone reads “Sheriff thur-sat”) and generally as a figure of fear. One of Rango’s tall tales about himself was even claiming that he and Jake are related (“But he’s a snake and you’re a lizard.” “Well, Mama had an active, ah, social life”) and that he drinks a glass of his venom every morning.
Jake doesn’t actually appear on screen until the start of the third act (which, as Orson Welles put it, is exactly how you build up a character in importance: have everyone else talking about him, and the audience will have him fixed in their minds as the star of the show, even if he doesn’t have much actual screen time). When he does, it’s the best scene in the film and a master class in how to establish a villain.
The scene begins with Rango giving another one of his improvised inspirational speeches, telling the assembled townsfolk that, however bad things are, they can still believe in him to get them through.
“Believe in that sign,” he says, pointing the ‘Sheriff’ sign. “Because as long as it hangs there, we’ve got hope.”
At which point the sign gets shot to pieces from off screen. As the panic fades, the characters all turn in the direction of the gunfire, and we get our first view of Rattlesnake Jake as he blows smoke from the barrels of his gun.
And cut to Rango realizing just how screwed he is right now.
Now, Jake could easily just shoot Rango right here. But would be too easy, and in a way too merciful. Instead, he means to tear the mask off his face and show him for what he really is, to dislodge him from the trust of the townspeople, in the process not only crushing him but them as well, as the hero in whom they’d placed all their trust and hope is revealed to be a fraud.
He opens by challenging Rango on his lies regarding himself; a point where Jake knows he’s been lying. But he doesn’t simply reveal the truth. Instead, he plays along a little, sarcastically greeting him as ‘brother’ and offering him a glass of venom, inviting him to make good on his claims.
Rango then tries to rally and begin his smooth talking, but Jake cuts him off two words in by flashing his fangs at him and making him cower.
Jake then proceeds to comment on Rango’s main legendary feat – killing the seven Jenkin brothers with one bullet – then says, “All these people believe your little stories…They think you’re going to save their little town. They think you’re going to save their little souls…”
As he says this, he gets right up to Beans, Rango’s love interest, in an aggressive manner. Then he pauses and checks Rango’s reaction. But the sheriff doesn’t dare do anything. Satisfied, Jake finishes with “But we know better, don’t we?” before licking her face.
What Jake’s been doing up till now is posturing; he challenges Rango, makes feints at him, gets into his personal space, and, as a final step, starts threatening his girl. All these things are meant to get a reaction out of him, to test his mettle, to see just how much of a man he is. See, Jake knows he’s a fraud, but doesn’t know how much of a fraud, so he feels him out. Once he’s been able to assault his girl with impunity, he knows exactly what kind of man he’s dealing with.
This is the point of posturing, by the way. Often it’s spoken of only as something weak or inadequate men do to try to compensate for their own lack of strength. Rango uses it in precisely this way throughout the film, covering up his fundamental weakness by acting tough. But that’s only one particular use of the behavior. It is also, as shown here, used by strong men to feel out and take the measure of other men; a kind of social reconnaissance. The difference between Rango and Jake’s posturings is simply that Jake can back his up while Rango can’t, and now they both know it.
Having taken the measure of the hero, the villain becomes more aggressive, and the confrontation reaches its climax. But once again, Jake doesn’t try to kill or fight Rango. Quite the contrary. Jake invites him to “show them who you really are” by simply shooting him then and there. He then proceeds to take Rango’s gun out of its holster (first dumping out all the bullets but one, in keeping with Rango’s boast of only needing one), place in his hand, and press his own face against the barrel.
“Go ahead hero,” he says, looking him steadily in the eyes. “Pull the trigger.”
And nothing at all prevents Rango from shooting Jake dead right then and there…except for the fact that he doesn’t have the nerve.
“You got killer in your eyes, son?” Jake asks after a moment. “I don’t see it.”
At which point, defeated, Rango lowers his gun.
It’s only then, after he’s definitively proven just what Rango is, that Jake confronts him with the truth, tearing apart his lies and forcing him to confess that they are lies.
Interestingly enough, Jake seems genuinely disgusted with Rango. He himself is a monster, but for that moment he has the moral high ground, because he at least isn’t a liar and a fraud. Moreover, as he just demonstrated, Jake actually does possess the virtues that Rango so lightly claimed for himself; courage, resolution, and so on. Villain though he is, he has every right to call him out.
“All you’ve done is lie to these good people,” he spits. “You ain’t nothing but a fake and a coward. Isn’t that right?”
And once again, Jake doesn’t kill him. He doesn’t need to. Having shown everyone – including Rango himself – just what he really is, all he has to do is throw him out of town, calling him a “pathetic fraud” and threatening to take him down to Hell if he ever sees him again.
So, what does this scene do?
Well, we’ve finally met the villain whom we’ve been hearing about the whole movie as a legendary and terrifying gunslinger. And every inch of him lives up to the legend; he not only has a great design and presence (being about ten times bigger than anyone else), but he completely dominates the scene. Jake is in command of the confrontation from beginning to end. It’s not just his power – though we get a taste of that in the way he opens by shooting the sign to pieces, and just from how big and fast he is throughout – nor even his cunning – though the way he works the scene shows him to be very clever indeed – but, what is rarer, his sheer force of personality.
This is really what makes him so impressive; Jake doesn’t need to throw Rango around or beat him to a pulp, though he very easily could. All he has to do is talk to him and posture a little to grind him completely into the dust. He’s the kind of man who aims to take control of every situation and who has the personal resources to do so. The moment Rango tries to assert himself, Jake shuts him down without ceremony. He is the mover, not the moved.
The point comes to a head in the moment where Jake presses Rango’s gun to his own head and invites him to pull the trigger. Jake is completely at Rango’s mercy, and yet it is still Rango who is paralyzed with fear while Jake remains unmoved. It isn’t a question of strength or skill or size for either of them; it’s a question of who these characters are.
See, anyone can simply declare that a bad guy is super powerful or skilled and have him throw around some flashy moves. Who cares?
But if you can make your villain take command of a scene, can show him to have substance and weight as a person, in short, to convey the idea that he is dangerous not because of what he can do, but simply because of who he is, that takes effort and skill to pull off.
You can watch the whole scene here (the above starts about the 2:10 mark). I’d also say the movie itself is worth seeing at least once; as noted, there are quite a few good things about it, though your mileage will definitely vary on the movie as a whole. For my money, Jake is easily the best part of the film, and I’d rank him as one of the top animated villains of the 21st century.