Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies
Producer: Gary Goetzman, Gail Mutrux, Gregory Goodman
Streaming Platform: Netflix
An old man, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), and a young girl, Johana (Helena Zengel), journey through the American South—rocky wilderness, and racial viciousness—on horse-cart, and then horse-back. Neither speak the language of the other. It is the 1870s and the raw wounds of the Civil War are still festering. Johana is twice orphaned— first as a child to German parents, when she was taken by the Kiowa, a Native American tribe, and then once again, when the tribe’s people were massacred, she was left orphaned. The Captain, who chances upon her with her “Agency Papers” decides to escort the child to her only living relatives—her aunt and uncle.
Johana, who grew up with the Kiowa Native American tribes as Cicada, doesn’t see herself as German or American, and she speaks neither of their languages. This is a very interesting choice, and speaks to the slipperiness of identities. Could she be considered Native American, even though she has no such blood in her? How much of an identity is the blood and the skin and how much of it is the conditioning that comes after?
Johana eats with her hands, smushing the prepared food against her face, like one eats fruit. The Captain travels from town to town. He’s a newsreader, and for 10 cents he will read out the happenings of the world in a theatrical baritone. He prefaces his performances with an attempt to make his audience “escape their troubles”. Then, he dives right into news of death by pandemics and the injustices in the world beyond. The audience reacts like in theater—anger that it is happening, and gratefulness that it isn’t happening to them. It is when he reads out the news of the abolishment of slavery that his white audience is riled up and stops his performance, to vent their own anger. The changing world is finally chancing upon them. The Captain, a decent, honourable man, with a wife waiting, and a hazy, haunting past that isn’t clear, who fought in the Civil War, notes, “We’re all hurting.”
The journey of the young and the old, traveling together, healing the other’s afflictions while the other casts a balm upon their own pain is a trope. It’s easy to tire, and given the 2 hour length of the movie, based on Paulette Jiles’ novel, all the more so. Director Paul Greengrass and co-writer Luke Davies plot the proceedings to reduce any such visual or narrative ennui. There are shootouts among hills with dry moss-infested rocks, with men trying to capture the child for trafficking.
Then there is also a radical, racial commune they chance upon. It is here that the Captain’s news reading is padded with a running narrative and rousing rhetoric. He’s not just reading the papers as he usually does, for he recognizes the need of narrativized news in a state where the powers throttle truth. But beyond these moments of drama, there’s also nature—the rugged mountains with steep slopes that the horses pedal along frightfully, and the dust storms across the empty prairies, with no trees, or life to stun the storm in its step. The world is thus episodic, moving from one point of drama to the next.
The episodic nature can get a bit tiring, especially as we get to the fourth “moment” of drama. The relationship between the Captain and Johana isn’t fleshed out in the interim because it is only in the “moments” that their companionship cements—in being able to surmount the challenges of nature and nurture, they become silent partners who occasionally share notes on each other’s vocabulary. The Captain isn’t sympathetic to the “civilizing mission”, but he understands its necessity in a world that values it. His grooming of Johana has that nuance. He teaches two words, and learns two in return. She is also not a helpless character, often using her grit to save both her and the Captain. She fires shots with casualness, betraying an ease with both life and death.
The episodic quality shows that the makers were consciously trying to subvert the “slowness” of this world. As a result, even though it is densely detailed, it isn’t immersive. There is a very transactional quality to every scene which doesn’t reflect the meandering slowness that the world is about. It’s an understandable narrative trade-off that the directors and writers pulled off well, punctuating the drama with the occasional top shots of the landscape.
What the film does best is not let the sentiments overpower. It is quite dry, the affections are felt more in the pauses and stares than in the embraces. Hanks’ quivering hands and steady glare make this character both fragile and fastidious. He doesn’t want to be seen as a hero, and doesn’t walk like one, because he recognizes, having seen loss in the battlefield, and in his own life, that heroism is only a layer of film that congeals over the quivering human. And because like he notes with resignation, “We’re all hurting”, and there simply is no point pretending otherwise.