The Kid is not a movie to recommend, not when the finished product feels as tired as it does here.
Not to skew historic here, but in thinking about movie Westerns it’s difficult not to go backward. For one, the genre’s time period is, of course, at a sizable remove from our present. There are no more true cowboys today, no more outlaws in the same sense. We don’t even have the same attachment to the great outdoors as we once did. That indeed goes part of the way in explaining why the Western has up and all but died in our culture. But in moving along that rope line we can also face a simpler fact: most recent Westerns have been bad.
Which is how we arrive at The Kid, the new film from actor and sometimes director Vincent D’Onofrio. As written by Andrew Lanham, the film builds around the story of Billy the Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett, two legendary figures who have been brought to life by actors ranging from Paul Newman in 1958, to James Coburn in 1973, all the way out to Emilio Estevez in 1988. In fact, Billy’s been in movies since as early as 1911, with his stand-in directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Howard Hughes over the years. There’s even a French documentary (Requiem for Billy the Kid) celebrating his legend. I realize I’m skewing historic again here, but my point is that it would take some mighty fine shooting for a new Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett film to hit the mark. And folks, this one misses.
On paper, there is intrigue to work with here. For his latest cinematic go-round, Billy the Kid is played by Dane DeHaan, a unique choice given the bold leading men who’ve donned his spurs in the past. True to form, DeHaan leans into the roguish qualities of Billy while refusing to make him into some grand hero. His is an off-balance performance that dismantles the usual grand myth-making of Billy’s cinematic past. Meanwhile, his heroic counterpart Pat Garrett is brought to life in a routine, if effective, performance from Ethan Hawke. While the film has other paths to mosey down, it returns to DeHaan and Hawke whenever it needs a stabilizing hand. And this is often, because the actual center of the film, a young boy named Rio and his sister Sara, are not nearly as interesting. How could ordinary people stack up to legends, after all?
We meet Rio (newcomer Jake Schur) and Sara (Leila George) as their mother is getting beaten and killed by their father. In the process, Rio manages to kill dear old dad and the pair run off to escape the ire of their evil uncle Grant, played by none other than Chris Pratt. At first blush, this is something novel too—Pratt as a dead-eyed villain—but he soon disappears from the frame as we’re drawn into grander Western lore. Some bland voiceover from Schur explains the emotional context for all of this, but little of it is memorable. Likewise D’Onofrio’s direction, which exhibits the resources and craft at his disposal—aerial shots, decent action scene blocking, unobtrusive editing—but fails to leave much of a mark on the mind’s eye. Without it, The Kid would be left entirely to its dead-on-arrival script, but painterly landscapes can only get a film so far.
Just to double-down: Lanham’s screenplay does make sure to leave no subtextual stone unturned. In fact, the contrivances he drops in the film—people announcing plot points, coincidence stacked upon coincidence, and that dang voiceover telling us emotion rather than letting us feel—undoes most of what’s being brought to life on screen. The margins on Westerns these days are exceedingly thin, and while they remain beloved by many (including, clearly, D’Onofrio), execution counts for a lot. When you’re putting words in a mouth as famous as Billy the Kid’s, they’d better not be boring.
In its attempt to be brutal and unflinching, The Kid loses the audience it should want for such a tale, one of a kid finding his way in the world and learning about what it means to meet your heroes (or, at least, learning who actually is a hero worth meeting). And since the writing is so stilted, the thematic beats so obviously pounded into the script, more seasoned audiences will likely just roll their eyes. When Hawke’s Garrett announces “we’re having a gun fight!,” it’s hard not to laugh; ditto in watching Pratt’s performance, which is supposed to be a raw embodiment of inflicted trauma and toxic masculinity, but is instead mannered to the point of ridiculousness. This could all be the point—life in the West curdling men’s minds, convictions brazenly on sleeves—but it also feels like old news.
Still, D’Onofrio’s desire to make a Western this decade is laudable. He strikes one as a man of passion and integrity, and he doubtlessly came by this project honestly and with an urge to tell it right. But The Kid is not a movie to recommend, not when the finished product feels as tired as it does here. Despite straining to find a new angle to the story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the film ends up merely reliving the clichés of the few Westerns worth anything in this day and age. A dutiful love letter perhaps, but as the old adage goes: perhaps they should have just reprinted the legend.