Why does Tom Hanks make everything just a bit more comforting? In his latest, he plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who travels from town to town in 1870 Texas reading the news to crowds as a form of entertainment. But one day between towns he comes upon a stagecoach that has crashed and he finds the only survivor, 10-year-old Johanna (Helena Zengel), with a note about how she was taken from her parents six years ago by the Kiowa, but that the government has taken her back. Kidd escorts her to the nearest town to hand her over to the authorities, but they won’t take her. And it becomes his job to deliver her to a family 600 miles away who she doesn’t know. She speaks no English, she’s somewhat feral and she’s not sure she trusts him, but as they make their way across desolate Texas, they grow closer while fending off bad guys, dealing with life-threatening weather, and learning bits of each other’s languages. It’s a familiar feeling story, but with Tom Hanks at the rudder, it makes for a solid family-friendly ride.
Adapted from a bestseller by Paulette Giles, the story boils down to two people whose lives have been torn apart taking care of one another. It’s about what family means. Johanna’s family was killed by the Kiowa. But she became one of the tribe and considered them her family only for them to be killed by the government. As one character says, “She’s an orphan twice over.” And Kidd has not been home since the war because of a tragic loss of his own. So there is a reluctance to bond on both their parts. But of course they must and it’s heartwarming to watch.
The scenes with just the two of them are juxtaposed with scenes of the post-war world filled with damaged people. They’re chased by and have a shootout with a couple of men who are bent on kidnapping beautiful blonde Johanna. They barely escape a town ruled over by a racist ideologue. They also stop in several towns for news readings where Kidd has old acquaintances who try but fail to help. It’s not a beautiful world they’re in, but adversity definitely brings them together.
Hanks reteamed with Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) who directed him in Captain Phillips back in 2013 and they make a strong pair. Hanks sinks his talented teeth into the role and I can see an Oscar nod. And young Helena Zengel definitely holds up her end. Even though she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, she communicates her pain and confusion brilliantly. The film harkens back to some great old Westerns like The Searchers and True Grit in both look and feel. And I see it as a contender in a lot of categories come awards time. I highly recommend it for holiday viewing with the family. Tom Hanks really is comfort watching.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I agree that Tom Hanks makes everything better – and he’s obviously never met a Captain role he didn’t like, or couldn’t handle. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen every element of this film in some fashion before as Capt. Kidd and his charge Johanna face one hardship after another. It’s like Bonanza meets Tarzan meets True Grit. I’m not a big fan of the period western, but this one is PG-13 so it never gets as brutal as other movies within the genre, and the ending, while predictable, couldn’t go any other way and still be a Tom Hanks movie suitable for family viewing over the holidays. Which it is. -hb]