It is perhaps ironic for a film titled News of the World to have nothing actually new within it. Fortunately, it's doing very familiar things very well, so even if the exact people most likely to enjoy what it's doing (diehard Western fans) are exactly the people most likely to have seen it all before, I think it's fair to assume they'll find it gratifying to watch, anyway. At least, I'm a diehard Western fan, and I found it gratifying, so that's one piece of evidence.

The film, adapted by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies from a 2016 novel by Paulette Giles, is basically a riff on The Searchers, if they didn't have to go searching. In 1870, aging ex-Confederate army captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) has found that his old life in Texas is quite irretrievably lost, so he has taken up a new profession in these wild, uncertain times: traveling from town to town, gathering newspapers from around the state and the world, and reading them to rapt audiences of illiterate farmers and other workers. His world is a fraught and vicious place, so it's more with a sense of dejection than horror that one day, as he travels between towns, he finds a lynched African-American soldier with a smashed-up wagon in the woods; the only survivor of the attack is a young girl (Helena Zengel), who comes with papers that explain her backstory. Conveniently enough, because she can't or won't speak a word of English. Born Johanna Leonberger in a German immigrant community, her entire family was killed by a Kiowa war party when she was an infant, and she has since then been raised as a Kiowa child. And now, the U.S. military has killed her entire adopted family, so she's an orphan twice-over, having been forcibly ripped out of two different cultures. Kidd has enough of his soul left at this point that he's not going to permit a child to die in the wilderness, so he takes her, uncomprehending, to the Indian agent in Red River, there to dump her off. Except that the agent is off God knows where, and nobody is interested in taking over an unspeaking, blatantly suspicious and hostile little girl for him, so basically more in the spirit of giving up than doing good, Kidd decides to take her along on his reading tour, until he can leave her with her aunt and uncle.

There are basically two ways this could go, and News of the World goes both of them: the heartwarming tale of two lost souls in a cold world finding solace and community with each other, and the bleak, troubling tale of the precarity of life in the American West in the days after the Civil War, when the frontier was flooded by everybody whose reaction to the war was a callous "fuck this, I'm going to go do my own thing". The film is extremely episodic, as it would almost have to be given the one-place-at-a-time structure of Kidd's life, and it is to the filmmakers' credit that each stop doesn't feel like it's just doing one thing, but instead giving us a slurry of different ways of reacting to a chaotic, violent landscape full of amoral people. Some people are actively good, such as the harried but decent Boudlin couple, Harry (Ray McKinnon) and Doris (Mare Winningham), who help Kidd with the small kindnessess they can afford. Some are almost unspeakable evil, like Almay (Michael Angelo Covino), who wants to kidnap Johanna to make her a sex slave. Virtually everyone is too busy attending to themselves to have the capacity to spare a measure of human connection to the two travelers, who very quickly form a committed two-person band against the cold hostility of the world. Along the way, the film indulges in quite a lot of moral ambivalence about the ruin and destruction visited upon the West by the arrival of U.S. settlers without making that ambivalence the "point" of the film, but it fits in nicely with the sense that everyone we meet is part of something brutal and unfeeling, even if as individuals they're trying to be decent.

It goes where you expect, almost to the point of contrivance (the ending feels much too tidy), and it hits every stop that a film of this sort would; just about the biggest surprise I had with News of the World was that Greengrass would direct a film with such a relatively stable camera - handheld, but stable - and so little jumpy editing, or that he'd limit himself to just one action sequence, a shootout between Kid and Almay's gang involving all the usual bluffing and hiding behind boulders. Indeed, if I didn't know going into the film, I'm not sure that I'd have ever guessed Greengrass was the director, no matter how many tries you gave me; just about the only real clue is that Hanks is giving a muted, naturalistic performance that's not miles away from the one he gave under Greengrass when they collaborated on Captain Phillips in 2013. This isn't quite as thorough a deconstruction of the actor's warm, "America's Dad" persona as that film was; Kidd is the standard-issue One Decent Man In A World Gone Crazy, and the arc of the narrative is all about him and a big-eyed little girl forming a family bond. But there's a lot of exhaustion in his performance, a clear feeling of hatred at the world and depression for what he's lost, that are plain in Hanks's low, grumbling line deliveries, and the way he looks off into the distant with a disaffected frown on his face. It would be extremely hard to defend calling this one of the actor's greatest performances: it's certainly capable and effortlessly natural, and he navigates the emotional currents of the story with moving sincerity, but he's basically doing exactly what the script is telling him to do. That's enough to securely anchor the drama, though, and does there really need to be anything else? And anyway, he and Zengel have tremendous chemistry together, and his mordant acting nicely sets up her tense, wary pantomime; for that matter, it wouldn't do to overlook how great Zengel is, eleven years old at the time of the shoot and nimbly moving through a pretty challenging part (all based on body language and facial expressions, involving three languages, and with a much more elaborate character arc to execute than Hanks has).

Anyway, the character study at the heart of this story is very satisfyingly done, even if its thoroughly over-familiar. And the world built around the characters is just as satisfying, with Dariusz Wolski (Ridley Scott's current go-to cinematographer) embracing the grandeur of the New Mexico locations to create a sweeping vision of the West as a place of hazy, dusty beauty in long shots, and a grubby, hard, sun-bleached emptiness in close-ups; this also works nicely with David Crank's sets and Mark Bridges's costumes to accentuate the physical reality of the human outposts scattered around the plains, while preserving a feeling of something lost to time in all of the murky interior lighting. But daytime exteriors are where the film does its best work (I could do without the artificial-looking color grading of the night scenes), exaggerating the yellow and orange tint of the sun enough to evoke a worn-out feeling of age and dirt and sweat.

It's all very sedate and heavy, which is probably why the film can get away with having such an unapologetic sentimental streak; it feels like the movie (and by extension the characters, and us) has earned a right to some gooey human warmth here and there, by dragging itself through the implacable, inhuman loveliness of the images and the flat, blunt detachment of most of the supporting cast. It all fits together to create a very solid, very satisfying Western fable, one that somewhat pointedly refuses to make any claims of thematic resonance greater than what happens emotionally between these two people, though like any good work in this genre, it certainly doesn't resist standing in for all sorts of currents in American life. Especially the beloved Western chestnut about the gulf between living free but lonely in the wilderness, versus being ground into paste by the safety of "civilisation". And it's certainly not hard to see how this story about the power of news stories to transform the listener can be allegorised to the period of its making, as well as several other periods. I don't think it needs allegory to work, though; the cautious, defensive eruption of warmth between Hanks and Zengel is pretty much enough to be a deeply pleasant, layered but straightforward genre yarn.