“It don’t matter what’s true. It matters what story they tell when you’re gone.”
The prospects of a ‘Magnificent Seven’ reunion between Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, and Vincent D’Onofrio are limited by how much one enjoyed that Western. However, count me as one of those people that enjoyed the revisionist angle and fury of what could’ve wound up another soulless Hollywood remake. For The Kid, D’Onofrio takes a title ostensibly about Billy the Kid and saddles the focus onto young Rio Cutler (Jake Schur). Rio’s been introduced to violence at a young age–his father dispenses it to his mother often. Once the old man beats her to death, Rio takes justice into his own hands and shoots him. The action is cleanly shot, yet hastily introduced, building the sibling’s uncle Grant up as the big bad (Chris Pratt) before promptly leaving him offscreen until much later.
His older sister, Sara (Leila George), thinks fast and has them both headed to the Southwest. “I need you to picture who you’re gonna be when all this is over,” Sara confides in Rio. A motif that D’Onofrio and screenwriter Andrew Lanham come back to often. The choice between the man Rio wants to be and what circumstances will force him to be is represented quite well by two sides of the law in Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke).
Rio and Sara go to sleep in a hideout on the run from their uncle, but awaken to find themselves in a shootout between Garrett and the Kid. Billy introduces himself with his full name and a reminder that whatever Rio and his sister Sara (Leila George) have read about him is “mostly lies.” Billy doesn’t consider his actions in moral terms, merely calculated steps from A to B to ensure his survival. A figurative custody battle forms when Garrett takes Billy prisoner (after a brief shootout) and offers Rio and Sara safe passage. The time spent Rio and Billy hiding out from the law has already taken its toll, however. Rio quickly grows to idolize the hero of the dime store novels. “You really think I’m like you?” Rio asks Billy with a hint of awe.
Ever the showman, Billy plays up his legend for press and passersby. Using Garrett’s prison wagon as a goodwill tour, Billy further entrances Rio, not without drawing scorn from Hawke’s outraged lawman. “You murdered men,” Garrett sneers at Billy, that charge being enough to justify any of his actions taken, no matter how cruel. Garrett is a compromised man, Billy argues, the only difference between the two of them is that the powerful pinned a badge on Garrett’s chest. Hawke and DeHaan are quite magnetic in their respective roles, so it’s almost understandable that The Kid loses sight of Rio as the cat and mouse game between Garrett and Billy take priority.
Where the script gets a tad overstuffed is the reappearance of Uncle Grant, who kidnaps Sara with the intention of selling her body in Mexico. There’s no mirth to Chris Pratt’s menace. No mustache twirling or grand, eloquent gestures, he’s just a mean son of a bitch. Famous for playing affable schlubs like Andy from Parks and Rec and Emmet from The Lego Movie, Pratt flexes his acting muscle to play the ruthless scourge. However, when juxtaposed against two more restrained actors in DeHaan and Hawke, Pratt’s portrayal feels unintentionally broad. A shame considering how nuanced the rest of the cast is.
Left with no legal recourse to get his sister back, Rio places his faith in the hands in both Billy and Garrett once more to see where his path lies. The Kid teases out thoughts from the archetypal Garrett and Billy on predestination but stops short of tilting the film toward being anything other than an old-fashioned Western. Wicked deeds early on may seal your fate, but Vincent D’Onofrio knows well enough to keep the good vibes going. In fact, that may be the chief complaint against the film: it plays everything too safe. From the lingering shots of desert vistas to D’Onofrio keeping the camera tight on the actors, The Kid doesn’t leave viewers in any state of anticipation.
The strength of the film lies in the cast, highlighted by Dane DeHaan and Ethan Hawke. Haunted by his fame, all of Billy’s interactions are performed with the inflection of him knowing it’s probably his last. DeHaan could have easily resorted to maudlin theatrics, but he lets the moments of fear and doubt flicker across his eyes. Likewise, Hawke’s Garrett is a man who finds his certainty is now waning. He’s lived through too many mistakes to not grab redemption when offered to him. Jake Schur had the unenviable task of making his acting debut opposite these two actors, but the youngster more than holds his own.
Aided by a more potent script and a taught second act, D’Onofrio’s film could have resulted in one of the decade’s notable Westerns, as it stands, The Kid will serve as one of many satisfactory streaming options from the comfort of home.