The Kid can be at times a highly effective western with Vincent D’Onofrio bringing a healthy dose of brutal action and his own visual style, but it sadly wastes the performances of DeHaan and Hawke with third-act problems that have the film limp to its finish.
There have been so many renditions of the legend of Billy the Kid and the exploits of Pat Garrett as he attempted to capture him (and keep him locked up, for that matter), one can’t help to take them seriously. From a series of films led by various Hollywood stars from the Golden Age of cinema to Young Guns, all of them are based on tall tales, and come out like a bad Ponzi scheme (watch Netflix’s The Bleeding Edge, how the medical device industry bases their contraptions on inferior products, multiplying the problem ten-fold; in a sense that is the problem with the historical western). So, when watching the new western The Kid and Ethan Hawke says, “It doesn’t matter what’s true, what matters is the story they tell when you’re gone,” you are much better off enjoying the ride than looking for the historical accuracy of the journey you are letting director Vincent D’Onofrio takes you on.
The film starts in 1879, with a brutal scene of a young man named Rio (newcomer Jake Schur) watching his father beat his mother to death, but before she passes, he manages to put a bullet in him. His father’s brother, Grant Cutler (Chris Pratt, who is covered in a thick beard, which is a good thing since he makes me laugh every time I see him on-screen since Parks & Rec) of course has an issue with this, abusing his sister-in-law or not. As soon as they get a window to escape the house, Rio and his sister (Mortal Engines’ Leila George) take off with Uncle Grant on their tail. Along the way, they tag along with the infamous Billy the Kid (an electric Dane DeHaan), with bad timing, as they are cornered in a shed by the legendary (some also might call infamous) lawman Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke).
The Kid is the second feature-length film directed by veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio, and he shows a real eye for visual style, along with striking yet brutal action scenes that can be uncompromising. His takes on the legend (or myth) of Billy the Kid is nuance, with DeHaan looking the appropriate age at the time (even though, incredibly, he is 33 years old in real life), and his performance is a high-voltage one. Unfortunately, the performance of Schur is stiff, which is understandable this being his first film role. This would suggest some tighter editing was needed to cover up the young actor’s chops until he is more seasoned.
Then there is Ethan Hawke, who has had a career rebirth the in recent years, with his stunning performance last year in First Reformed, a wonderful supporting turn in Juliet, Naked, and directing last year’s criminally underseen Blaze. This is, believe it or not, his third western since 2016 (the remake of the Magnificent Seven, and the brutal In the Valley of Violence) and his performance as Pat Garrett is a good one. He and D’Onofrio strip the legend away that shows the moral ambiguities of being a lawman in the Old West, often sacrificing civilians as pawns to catch his man.
The fault in the film is the script by Andrew Lanham, whose third act plot is paper-thin from the beginning and at times is contrived, in a way to drive the film home to get where it needs to be. The result is a film that feels longer than its 100-minutes that limps to its eventual finish. While the script has some nice lines, every time Chris Pratt comes on-screen, he seems to be hamming it up in his first role as a true villain, with no beard thick enough to cover up his boyish charms.
Then there are the complaints some have had of the treatment of women in the film, which is understandable, as most westerns use women as commodities and are tossed aside without a care in the world about their eventual demise. Sadly, this is a problem that can’t be fixed easily, since women were shamefully treated in this manner during a time where they had very few rights and were expected to bear families or be forced into what today would be considered human trafficking. It is not an easy problem to solve, which may be the reason the western has had such a hard time keeping a foothold in Hollywood. The film doesn’t sugar-coat that treatment and doesn’t offer a happy ending for most of these women, only a bleak one (though using the abuse of women to enhance the Pratt’s Cutler character as a one-note villain is questionable).
The Kid, if anything, has enough positive attributes that it may be worth a look for anyone being a fan of the genre; any film that has the foresight to add Ben Dickey to its cast shows it had the right intentions involved. I’m excited to see what D’Onofrio has planned next, but the films third-act problems waste the strong performances from DeHaan and Hawke, resulting in an admirable notch in the genre’s history, just not a standout one.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.