Commemorating an era of revisionist-revisionist Westerns (we’re now further away in time from the deconstructed ones than the ones that deconstructed them were from the originals), “The Kid” simultaneously wants to humanize and mythologize its cowboys — and neither effort works.
Yet another story about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, this time presented from the viewpoint of an impressionable teenager witnessing the final days of their cat-and-mouse camaraderie, Vincent D’Onofrio’s film is a maudlin, violent affair that wants us both to admire and to understand the two Old West luminaries, but all it really does is remind us that famous people should seldom if ever be seen as role models.
Jake Schur plays Rio Cutler, a 14-year-old who intervenes in a fight between his mother, Mirabel (Jenny Gabrielle, “Only the Brave”), and father, Pete (Keith Jardine, “Logan”), and accidentally shoots him to death. Pete’s brother Grant (Chris Pratt) shows up full of grief and fury, but Rio stabs him and flees into the New Mexico wilderness with his sister, Sara (Leila George, “Mortal Engines”). But before they can find safe haven, Rio and Sara find themselves in the same hideout as Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan), who unfortunately has Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) and a fleet of deputies hot on his heels.
Apprehended and brought to a nearby town for safekeeping, Sara manufactures a story to lower Pat’s suspicions and hopefully to score them a police escort to safer territory. But when members of local law enforcement uninterested in due process become determined to make Billy pay for his crimes, Rio and Sara are caught between Billy and Pat as the former plots an escape attempt and the latter hardens his resolve to bring Billy to justice. Grant arrives to further complicate matters, kidnapping Sara and forcing Rio to grow up a lot faster than he’s ready to as he sets out to rescue his sister.
Written by Andrew Lanham (“The Shack”), “The Kid” trots out every Western cliché in the book and mashes them together in the hopes that audiences won’t notice there’s nothing original about its take on any of them. There’s the gregarious, guilt-stricken Billy, clinging to his last shred of humanity as he fumbles through mood swings with a combination of delusion and self-rationalization; rigid moralist Pat Garrett, who soon realizes that the “law of the west” possesses a few more shades of grey than the rules that he’s sworn to uphold; three groups of underlings and followers — Billy’s, Pat’s, and Grant’s — who exude obedience but largely exist to get in front of the bullets meant for their leaders; and Rio, a whiny, naive kid reckoning with the inhumanity and consequences of adulthood after absorbing the contradictory lessons of his would-be mentors.
Together, it’s a tedious, noisy slog. DeHaan, seeming ever more like an actor who was promised a career primarily because he looks like a much more talented one, mistakes volume for charisma, and his manic-depressive shtick as Billy quickly grows tiresome. Hawke is shrewd enough to underplay Garrett’s world-weariness, but he’s repeatedly hamstrung by a sense of pacing that suggests that the priority was getting through each scene as quickly as possible. Consequently, the movie repeatedly alludes to their respective legends, but neither satisfactorily provides intriguing, relatable details, nor bolsters them with feats of glory, greatness or even street-level poetry. The movie searches for charm and melancholy in their tête-a-tête, but instead finds a pathetic kind of repetition — if we weren’t fighting, what else would we do? — that could have opened up a completely new direction had it been intentional.
And then there’s Rio, a blank slate upon which Billy and Pat project their worldviews. Their dialectic unfolds a bit like Elias, Barnes and Chris in “Platoon,” albeit thankfully without the overt religious metaphors. But Oliver Stone had a hellish plot tying those three men together, and each character in D’Onofrio’s film is in his own story.
Perhaps more like Luke Skywalker scampering after Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rio admires these newfound father figures and yearns for their freedom and authority as much as he fears their adult world, but he lacks Hamill’s deliberate petulance, and rushes towards the movie’s eventual flip — he learns to be strong so that Sara can be weak — without earning the growth, much less understanding it.
Cinematically, D’Onofrio shows tremendous improvement as a director in his first film since 2010’s “Don’t Go in the Woods,” an almost unwatchable mess of horror clichés. This is watchable, just not very good. If you’re going to make a Western in 2019, then you need to figure out what you’re going to say about one of cinema’s oldest genres, if only to avoid mixing a lot of conflicting messages and themes.
I’m sure there’s a fresh approach to be found with the history surrounding Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, whether it’s based in the truth, pure legend or even in metaphor.
“It doesn’t matter what’s true,” Garrett observes in the film. “What matters is the story they tell when you’re gone.” But that lesson is something that D’Onofrio failed to heed himself, which is why “The Kid” never tells a story, true or false, that matters.