Genre: Adventure, Drama, and Western Running Time: 1 hr. 59 min.
Release Date: December 25th, 2020 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Paul Greengrass Actors: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Michael Angelo Covino, Christopher Hagen, Fred Hechinger
t’s 1870 in Wichita Falls, North Texas, when Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) gathers in front of a crowd to tell them of the latest news from across the world – the great changes happening out there, which he reads from several newspapers. It’s a service he regularly performs from town to town (for a nominal sum), not only because outside information is difficult to come by, but also because of widespread illiteracy. The following day, as Jefferson rides through the forest, he comes across an overturned covered wagon and a dead black soldier, clearly murdered by racists, before encountering young, wild Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), who was being escorted by the deceased. She doesn’t speak English, having been raised for the last six years by Kiowa Indians (who named her Cicada), but was rescued and being taken to an aunt and uncle in Castroville.
When Union cavalrymen coincidentally arrive, the commanding officer instructs Kidd to take Johanna to Red River, where he’s further informed that the agent who handles strays won’t be back for another three months – and that it’s up to him to be the girl’s ward. This is a considerable impediment to his job – and also a strange command, since he could abandon the child just as easily as obey the order, which can’t have much weight or accountability on a civilian. Watching over her soon proves to be troublesome indeed, considering the language barrier, her desire to return to the only people she knows, and her general inability to fend for herself. Although Jefferson attempts to temporarily leave her with friends (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham), he decides the wait is too long, and she’ll only continue her efforts to run away. He’ll have to take her the nearly 400 miles to her family himself.
The journey to Dallas and then to the hill country is sure to be fraught with danger. And it’s not immediately apparent why the aging Captain feels responsible for the hell-raising child, other than recognizing how alone and disoriented she must be, in need of guidance and a little kindness. As it so happens, Kidd left a wife back in San Antonio – through which he might pass on his way to Castroville, allowing for a long-awaited reunion.
This semi-Western period-piece adventure is a sizable departure from director Paul Greengrass’ usual works, foregoing a fast pace, rapid-cut-filled editing, and intense action – in favor of an unhurried character study through surrogate father/daughter bonding. Tensions do eventually escalate, but the first catalyst is a ludicrously contrived confrontation with well-informed ex-soldiers, inexplicably aware of the orphan’s situation. It’s a completely unbelievable scenario, doused in a certain desperation for conflict, as if the script was anxious to introduce gunplay for fear of audiences losing interest. It proffers brief suspense, but reeks of triteness.
Hanks is once again entirely watchable, even in a role that doesn’t push his acting skills in the slightest (the costuming and makeup are suitable in a quaint way). Of major disservice, however, is the fact that his persona isn’t given the details necessary to fully understand his career, which is detrimental to the various episodes in which his storytelling capabilities prove indispensable. And while the highly contrasting duo – in what is something of a road movie – poses moderate amusement, their odyssey continually wanders into the realm of a postapocalyptic horror picture. Despite the grounded setting, these unprepared, isolated travelers bump into one after another group of frighteningly erratic souls, seemingly capable of doing just about any spontaneous act of evil – not unlike in a zombie thriller. And several predicaments materialize out of nothing, again as if to punctuate a rambling story.
At least Kidd is on the side of good, propelled by a sense of righteousness even when confronted with insurmountable odds. But when his life – and by extension the life of Johanna – is in jeopardy, he sticks to a propriety that might help him sleep at night but absolutely won’t aid in his mission to deliver the girl to safety. This is a disconcerting concept, since he chose to escort her; it’s a responsibility that doesn’t always fit with his moral code, but one that ought to take precedence. By the end, it’s still unclear if the correct decisions were made, but the resoluteness (itself posing further impracticalities) is nevertheless welcome. None of it makes for a particularly notable production, however, which is this film’s biggest downfall; it just doesn’t leave much of an impression.
– Mike Massie