Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA/China, 2020. Perfect World Pictures, Playtone, Pretty Pictures, Universal Pictures. Screenplay by Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles. Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Produced by Gary Goetzman, Gregory Goodman, Gail Mutrux. Music by James Newton Howard. Production Design by David Crank. Costume Design by Mark Bridges. Film Editing by William Goldenberg.
Westerns that purport to re-examine the traditions of the genre have been many in the last decade, most of whose claims at upending the old story of the noble white man taming the savage land rarely amount to more than aesthetic efforts (even in the case of films as enjoyable as The Revenant). Paul Greengrass suggests the possibility of resurrecting the spirit of McCabe and Mrs. Miller with this captivating film that reveals the dirty underbelly of every facet of the myth of the Wild West: the wide open spaces are a test of survival, the dusty towns are overrun with corruption and the pioneering homesteaders are miserably plundering the land for their own basic survival. The fact that indigenous Americans are a central theme but are almost never seen is the result of European settlers having already destroyed their presence in this place, and that is the hellish landscape to which we are introduced. Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a Civil War veteran who now makes his living traveling the country and reading articles from the latest newspapers to crowds who gather before him, looking to be enthralled by the tales he tells of battles in far off lands or the economic upheavals in the east that will make their way to them eventually; after collecting dimes in his bucket for his trouble, he gets back on his wagon and heads for another location. He is taken for a detour when, en route to the next town, he encounters a lynched black man in a tree and an overturned wagon near him containing one passenger, a twelve year girl (Helena Zengel). She speaks to him only in Kiowa and carries papers with her that suggest that she was being escorted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and since he can’t imagine leaving her there alone, he takes her with him to the nearest town to find military help. The little girl tells him her name is Cicada but her German name is Johanna, and it turns out that she was taken by the Kiowa as a toddler after they killed her entire family. She has an aunt and uncle still living, but when Kidd is told that no one can take her to her new home for a month, he decides to take responsibility for it himself. The film threatens to get silly but never does as it becomes a Wild West Paper Moon, the soft-spoken ex-soldier and rebellious young woman at odds with each other despite hardly understanding each other, who then become chummy as she starts helping him out at his live performances. Their journey becomes one station of survival after another, running into a group of brigands who try to kidnap her away from him for their own lascivious desires, dealing with the dangerous conditions of the roads that take their toll on their vehicle, and angering a local factory boss when their news articles raise a union-style consciousness among the workers who come to hear them read. The adventures pile up as this unlikely but convincingly loving twosome make their way to their final destination and the hard decisions that come, the deeper themes of the dubious nature of the colonial project mixing beautifully with the enjoyment of the spirited, exciting sequences. Hanks contributes the quiet grace that has made him a beloved, solid hero in his most satisfying performances, and Elizabeth Marvel has a terrific cameo as a friend who helps them communicate. It is Zengel who pulls it all together, her expressive eyes and commanding charisma giving the film its dramatic centre, easy to understand in her emotional plight even when language is a barrier.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Cinematography; Best Production Design; Best Sound; Best Original Score
Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Helena Zengel); Best Original Score
Screen Actors Guild Nominations: Best Supporting Female (Helena Zengel); Outstanding Stunt Ensemble