In Texas in 1870, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) is a "newsman," who travels from town to town reading the news to paying audiences, helping them escape their local troubles and stay connected with the outside world. On his way between towns, he finds a young girl, Johanna Leonburger (Zengel), who, despite being white, is dressed in Native American clothes and only speaks Kiowa. Discovering she was kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa after her parents and siblings were murdered in a raid on her family homestead, Kidd resolves to take her to her aunt and uncle in Castroville. All of this plays out against the backdrop of post-Civil War Texas, which has still not been restored to the Union and where watchful federal troops keep order on a disgruntled population, and where conflicts with and dispossession of Native Americans keep tension high and violence an ever-present risk.
The film was released by Universal on December 25, 2020 in the United States, making its premium video-on-demand debut 3 weeks later as part of the studio's COVID-19-induced arrangement with theater chains. It was released on February 10, 2021 in other territories via Netflix.
- Abnormal Ammo: During a shootout with some Confederate veterans who want to buy Johanna as a sex slave, Kidd runs out of revolver bullets and only has birdshot left. Johanna has the idea to put coins in the shells, which prove devastatingly effective.
- Adapted Out: In the novel, Kidd is a father with daughters living in Georgia. The film opts to make Kidd childless.
- Affably Evil: Almay is unfailingly polite to Kidd, even as he attempts to buy Johanna and sell her into sex slavery and engages in a cliffside shootout with Kidd.
- Age Lift: While never explicitly stated, Kidd appears to be at least a decade or so younger than his novel counterpart, who was a veteran of both the Mexican-American War and the War of 1812.
- Because You Were Nice to Me: John Calley helps Kidd survive in Erath County because Kidd is the only person who treats him civilly. He later gives Kidd his guns so that Kidd can keep Johanna safe.
- Cruel to Be Kind: Kidd gruffly, but gently, sends John on his own way so the boy will learn to be his own mannote .
- Dark and Troubled Past: Johanna's family was slaughtered by Kiowa natives and they took her in as their own. Then they were slaughtered by the Union army. She was orphaned twice over, as Jane puts it.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: At first, Kidd takes responsibility for Johanna because it's the least worst option for an orphan thrust into a foreign culture. Gradually, he comes to regard her with genuine affection and finally adopts her as his own.
- Determined Homesteader: Johanna's aunt and uncle are this, working a plot of land with little time for anything else. This is portrayed negatively for Johanna because she can't adapt to that kind of life after everything she's been through, so Kidd ultimately comes back to adopt her.
- Foreshadowing: Kidd insists on not looking back and just moving forward, while Johanna says that you have to remember the past before you can do so. Kidd gives Johanna up to her aunt and uncle at first, but after making peace with the life he lost when he joined the war effort, he decides to go back for her since she can't fit in with them, and raise her as his own.
- Genre Savvy: One could say that Kidd is aware that the lone cowboy figure is not a suitable parent similar to Ethan Edwards in The Searchers
- Happily Adopted: After initially leaving her with her aunt and uncle, Kidd realizes that he doesn't want to let Johanna be raised by people who can't love and accept her as he has learned to do, and goes back to ask her to come with him. After an emotional reconciliation he adopts her as his daughter, and in the end they are shown laughing and smiling together as they perform the news for an audience.
- Hidden Depths: Jane, the motel owner, reveals she speaks Kiowa after being told by Kidd that this is the only language Johanna speaks. With her help, Kidd can finally have a conversation with the girl.
- I Own This Town: Mr. Farley runs Erath County with an iron fist, essentially controlling it as his own petty fiefdom, as he owns the buffalo hide tannery that employs virtually everyone. With a story about Pennsylvania coal miners in a similar situation, Kidd convinces them to overthrow Farley's rule.
- I Surrender, Suckers: When the shootout with the former Confederate soldiers comes down to Kidd having only his shotgun, Kidd agrees to surrender after Johanna suggests putting dimes in the shells as an alternative to birdshot. At the same time, Almay has his lackey pretend to go in unarmed in order to murder Kidd when he gets close. Both men play at making peace, but when the lackey tries to draw on him, Kidd is faster and shoots him down first.
- Money Mauling: Kidd pumps two bandits full of dimes Johanna collected.
- My Greatest Second Chance: Kidd is haunted by the guilt of having been off fighting in the war when his wife died of cholera. After returning home and visiting his wifes grave, he decides he doesn't want to miss his second chance to be there for someone dear to him, and rides as fast as he can to get Johanna back from her aunt and uncle.
- Noble Confederate Soldier: Kidd was a Confederate infantry captain and is an upstanding man in every respect. His attitude of getting past the violence and moving on contrasts with many Confederate veterans who are still bitter about their defeat.
- Papa Wolf: Despite "not having the patience" for raising a child, as he puts it, Kidd quickly becomes very protective of Johanna. In the end, when she can't fit in with her aunt and uncle, he adopts her.
- Race Lift: Almay's two companions are Native Americans in the book but are white men in the movie.
- Raised by Natives: Johanna was taken by the Kiowa after a raiding party murdered her family and burned out her homestead. They took her in and gave her the name "Cicada." Evidently she was quite young when they did this, as she considers herself the daughter of two Kiowa named Turning Water and Three Spotted, and she only speaks Kiowa; what remains of her native German is broken and heavily accented.
- Road Trip Plot: The movie mostly revolves around Kidd and Johanna travelling to Castroville, with them encountering various problems along the way. As such, there is no overarching Big Bad; just local villains that are not seen or mentioned again after they have been dealt with.
- The Savage Indian: Zigzagged. Most settlers certainly believe the Native Americans to be this, and truth be told they are revealed to have done some pretty barbaric things, like murdering Johanna's parents and siblings. On the other hand, when Kidd and Johanna run into a group of Kiowa after losing their wagon and horses, the Kiowa give them a new horse despite clearly having little belongings left. And Kidd admits that, while the Natives can be brutal, it is mostly in retaliation for the settlers driving them from their land.
- Token Good Teammate: John Calley is the only decent fellow among Mr. Farley's men, and ultimately turns on him after hearing Kidd's inspiring story about the Pennsylvania coal miners.