Four Academy Award nominations have already come in for this Paul Greengrass film about Captain Kidd (not Billy), a Civil War veteran, who is trying to make some sense out of his post-war life by going from town to poor, economically-strapped Texas town and simply reading the world’s news stories to audiences hungry for something beyond their own sad tales. He comes across a half-Indian, half-German orphan child whose family was killed and has no place to go. After overcoming a language barrier and culture shock, they both come to realize that their destinies are somehow inextricably bound.
Why was I initially drawn to this movie? Well, there’s Tom Hanks. I’ll admit it: I’ll seriously consider watching anything he stars in. And it’s an alternative Western. Panoramic views of canyons and plains sans the overplayed vigilante justice? I’ll take it.
Why did I like watching the movie? Good question: it’s stark, 75% of it takes place at night with crude kerosene lamps in dingy quarters, laughter is scarce, and life is hard. I liked it because despite making a meager income and being far from home, Captain Kidd (Hanks) always does the right thing: choosing good over evil, choosing truth over falsehood, choosing kindness over complacency. He gets no glory for it but his conscience will have it no other way. Meanwhile, Johanna (Helena Zengel), the girl, despite having her life ripped out from under her at a tender young age, takes a chance on this old stranger. They regard each other. He lets her eat food with her hands. She lets him pick her up and drag her onto the wagon. Only because they know that at the end of the day, they have each other’s backs; they trust each other.
It’s a film about humanity cast against a world with little hope and all sorts of reasons to give up on kindness. It’s a Western that celebrates neither vengeance nor triumph. It’s about people being good to each other when their world offers little good to be found. It’s about being open to a world that you cannot yet see.