At times, it feels like every filmmaker has a Western in them. In recent years, some great filmmakers have swung and failed miserably, but then you get results like the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and others that find a way to redefine an age-old cinematic genre in fascinating new ways. In the case of Oscar nominee Paul Greengrass (United 93), he reunited with his Captain Phillips star, Tom Hanks, for his first attempt at a Western, adapting Paulette Jiles’ novel with co-writer Luke Davies (Lion).
Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an ex-Civil War soldier who travels from town to town in the South, reading newspapers to the townsfolk for spare change. It’s a job that takes him through a number of rough Texas towns. Outside one of them, he finds a young orphan girl (Helena Zengel) who had spent the last few years being raised by natives before their encampment was destroyed by the army. Kidd doesn’t know how to deal with this wild and rambunctious girl (named Johanna) who only speaks the language of her Kiowa tribe. After a few attempts to leave her with people met on the road, Kidd realizes that she needs him as much as he needs her and tries to take her to her distant aunt and uncle.
Sure, it might sound a little corny on paper with more than a slight nod to a classic like Shane, but Greengrass finds a way into this material that allows him to mix tension-filled set pieces with truly emotional human moments. Maybe the latter shouldn’t be much of a surprise from Hanks, but what Zengel brings to every scene – stealing more than a few from the veteran Hanks — makes her quite a formidable newcomer. The film is fairly episodic in the way that the story is broken down into chapters in terms of the people they meet and incidents that happen. One particularly tense scene involves Thomas Francis Murphy as Mr. Farley, the leader of a militia-like town who doesn’t like strangers who don’t toe the line.
When it comes to Greengrass’ crew, we have to start with the Art Department, because it’s so crucial to how terrific News of the World looks. Anyone who has seen a Western might presume there’s some degree of sameness when it comes to the genre, but it’s how the team led by Production Designer David Crank (Knives Out) brings a very distinct look to the different towns Kidd and Johanna visit, making them all look very different from one another. The way Set Decorator Elizabeth Keenan (Selma) dresses up the various indoor locations makes you want to explore every inch to take in every small detail. Likewise, two-time Oscar winner Costume Designer Mark Bridges (The Artist, Phantom Thread) finds a way to differentiate between the different characters via the class system in play, so it never feels like the costumes were inherited from a previous production. It’s all about making a classic Western without making one that looks like every other Western.
The next key craft that’s just undeniable is the jaw-dropping camera and lightwork by Polish Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, ASC, who has shot many of Ridley Scott movies and many of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and his team. Amazingly, Wolski is working with Greengrass for the first time, and this is also his first Western. First of all, those beautifully-crafted interiors mentioned above are lit in a way to make them seem of the times – mostly small gas lamps requiring frugal additional lighting to make sure everything is still visible. Even more difficult must have been some of the outdoor settings, involving both night shoots as well as filming in the blazing hot sun where the sun’s position, while shooting some of the longer sequences, must have been hard to keep under control.
Many of Greengrass’ previous films have been hailed for their editing, and rightfully so. For this one, Greengrass brought back Editor William Goldenberger, ACE, from his previous film, 22 July, which didn’t get nearly as much attention as previous work from the filmmaker. Goldenberger won an Oscar for Argo and has been nominated for four other Oscars, for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Seabiscuit, so he is no slouch in terms of stepping up to what might be expected from a Greengrass Western. One particularly tension-filled shootout between Kidd and some bandits shows how Goldenberger steps things up, and honestly, I think it will get him yet another Oscar nomination.
Composer James Newton Howard has also received numerous Oscar nominations – 8, in fact – despite composing 133 film scores, and he has scored a few lesser-known Westerns, including Wyatt Earp and Hidalgo. For his first collaboration with Greengrass, his work sounds like that of a kid in a candy store finally being a given chance to really stretch his muscles to enhance every single moment, bolstering the performances but never overshadowing. Honestly, I would love to see Howard win his well-deserved Oscar for News of the World, because it’s a fine piece of music that enhances everything Greengrass and his team were trying to achieve.
The music is only part of what makes News of the World so aurally enticing, as it’s one of those movies I wish I was able to see in one of those large movie houses to fully appreciate the work of Supervising Sound Editor/Designer Oliver Tarney, a three-time Oscar nominee who has worked pretty consistently with Greengrass going back to United 3, and also is a veteran Ridley Scott collaborator. I probably would say the same about the work by Re-Recording Mixers Mike Prestwood Smith, who has mixed many of Greengrass’ prior films, and William Miller, a new collaborator who previously mixed Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver.
One thing that interested me was how many of the above names had or hadn’t worked with Greengrass before or had already worked on a Western; it’s an interesting mix in both cases but the results are undeniable.
Make no mistake that News of the World is one of the better Westerns from the past few decades and possibly one of the best movies you’ll see this year, especially if you’re a fan of the genre. Maybe you’ll go into it thinking you know what a Greengrass-Hanks Western might look like and you may be partially right. For the many genre tropes Greengrass doesn’t shy away from, he also uses the fairly simple storytelling in such an effective way to draw out every possible emotion from the viewer.
News of the World hits theaters on Christmas Day, December 25.
All photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.