The Tom Hanks western is a typical road movie that often rises above its predictable genre and occasionally soars. It is rich with period detail and left me with a real emotional impact.
The story follows a Civil War Veteran named Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, played by Tom Hanks. He makes a living traveling from remote town to remote town and reading out newspapers to the townsfolk who either can’t read or don’t have the time and inclination after toiling all day. The film is full of fascinating historical details like this. People really made their living reading the news for a dime.
On the road, Kidd comes across an overturned wagon and a young girl. This girl it turns out was taken by the Kiowa tribe of Indians after her family was murdered. She has lived her life as one of them, but was taken in order to be returned to her remaining family. As one character says she has been orphaned twice in her life. Her name is Johanna and she is played by newcomer Helena Zengel, and my goodness is she fantastic. She is actually German and in the course of the film speaks three different languages, Kiowa, German, and English. She is enigmatic, empathetic, and defiant all in a single look.
Kidd reluctantly decides to take her to her family and the two set out together. If you’ve seen one road movie you know what happens. They encounter bad weather, good people who try to help and bad people who try to harm them all the while they bond and grow closer. What makes this movie stand out for me is the authenticity of it. It is brimming with true to life details. One of the villains who menaces them was in the war and felt cheated. He lost everything, and doesn’t appear to have any use of his right arm. That kind of specific detail just enriches this character who could’ve been a generic baddie. The rooms are all lit by sunlight through the windows or by candles and lanterns. There don’t appear to be any artificial lights to create a mood. It just lends an authentic feel. There’s a practicality also to the supplies the characters have. Kidd is not rich, he borrows a wagon for the trip. He only has one gun with limited ammunition. He has to stop and read the news for money to pay their way. This isn’t a road movie where practical life isn’t taken into consideration. It added so much to experience of their journey for me. I loved feeling immersed into this world.
The actors are universally solid, but Hanks and Zengel are stunning. They are both great performers and they equal each other in their scenes here. I loved the way that their bond wasn’t forced. These two circle each other and slowly trust one another while only sharing a few words in common. The scene where they teach each other words in their own language was a joy. Skilled performers doing great work is always a pleasure.
The film is directed by Paul Greengrass. I’ve never liked Paul Greengrass. He ushered in the age of shaky-cam, rapid-editing disorienting action movies with The Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum. His work has always been fine. It’s never really worked for me. He doesn’t seem to have much of a vision as evidenced by the first shot of this movie being a shadowy back room where Tom Hanks is doing something. It’s not clear. The movie doesn’t exactly announce its presence with its first shot so much as stumble into its first scene. He doesn’t craft images so much as shoot action. Which is fine. It’s serviceable. His filmmaking doesn’t do much for me. Here, he doesn’t do shaky cam action. His filmmaking isn’t inspired but it gets the job done and tells the story efficiently.
My other big issue was the cgi. It’s used sparingly here, mostly just to recreate herds of buffalo and cattle being driven across the plains. That said it is so bad. It is distractingly bad. It looks like a beautiful landscape photo with a bunch of video game animals awkwardly inserted into it. It might not bother anyone else, but I found super distracting.
It’s somewhat predictable, the direction is lacking flair, and the cgi is poor. On the other hand you have A+ performances and a world rich in detail. For me, the good overtakes the bad. Hanks and Zengel give such compassionate and beautiful performances that my heartstrings were tugged and I felt it all. It’s a really good movie if not an entirely great one.
It is my cup of tea. A-