Tom Hanks leads this handsomely shot but stolid and blandly self-satisfied western, based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles; it’s directed by Paul Greengrass (who co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies) but mostly without the dynamism and visceral action he’s known for. Hanks plays Kidd, a former Confederate captain with a secret sadness in his heart, making a living in the troubled and lawless state of Texas after the civil war, travelling around like a huckster or a preacher, reading aloud stories from the newspapers to the mostly illiterate townsfolk for 10 cents a head.
One hot afternoon, he chances across the body of a hanged black man who has evidently had the charge of a terrified and now mute little white girl that Kidd finds cowering nearby. This is Johanna, whose German migrant pioneer family were slaughtered by Kiowa Native American warriors, who took Johanna away and renamed her “Cicada” but who were then slaughtered in their turn by white marauders. Lonely, rueful Kidd makes it his business to take Johanna to her German aunt and uncle, who must be persuaded to take her in. They are reasonably near San Antonio – where he can also finally make a reckoning with his own demons. As for Johanna, or Cicada, she sometimes speaks Kiowa and sometimes German but mostly nothing at all. Yet she has certain warrior skills which are to be vital for their survival.
Johanna is played by the fierce young child actor Helena Zengel who made such an amazingly strong impression in the recent German drama System Crasher, in which she played a troubled nine-year-old problem child whose anarchic energy brings the social services to breaking point. Sadly, this script and this movie don’t allow her to let rip in anything like the same way.
Zengel and Hanks trot along together, sort of like Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, or even Mowgli and Baloo in The Jungle Book: an odd couple who never really have a falling out, or even that much of a falling in. Tom Hanks’s own nice-guy persona encompasses the movie’s unspoken accommodations and triangulations: Kidd is a former Confederate soldier (bad) but now a mild campaigner in the cause of peace and reconciliation (good). Johanna/Cicada has seen her white kin murdered by Native Americans and then her adoptive Native American kin murdered by white bandits. So she is steered straight down the middle path of 21st-century victimhood equivalence.
The one moment where the movie really comes alive, and when something really seems to be at stake, is when three deeply unpleasant men come to Kidd’s news-reading and take a vicious interest in the little blond child. They ask Kidd how much he wants for her, sneering that they could just as well take her by force. A very tense chase ensues, with Kidd all too well aware that, although he has a pistol, his shotgun is filled only with useless birdshot. This is one moment where Hanks’s risk-free decency is sensationally tested. Here are vicious murderous sex trafficker paedophiles, and Kidd must kill or be killed. It’s a powerful scene, where Greengrass’s action expertise suddenly flares up.
And the rest of the time? Well, the movie is presented to us like the unexceptionable news stories that Kidd reads aloud to his crowd with a liberal message, and – disconcertingly – the liveliest news-reading scene is saved for the very end, almost happening over the closing credits. I found myself thinking of Hanks’s other “Southern” role: the sinister dandy and criminal mastermind Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr in the Coens’ ill-starred remake of the Ealing classic The Ladykillers. Not a great movie, or indeed a great role for Hanks who doesn’t quite suit villains, however tongue-in-cheek they’re supposed to be. But there was a point, or an edge, to that character. His persona here is equable and easy-going, qualities which are of course necessary to his sympathetic brand identity, but he doesn’t plausibly change in any dramatic way. This is a slow news day.
• Released on 10 February on Netflix.