With just enough fact built into the narrative to sway it from being pure fan fiction, actor-turned-director Vincent D’Onofrio’s sophomore film The Kid still probably shouldn’t be viewed as the substitute for cracking open a history book.
Mentioning the recorded name of the first man legendary sheriff Pat Garrett killed in his youth and re-enacting the controversial meeting between Garrett and his outlaw prey William H. “The Kid” Bonney in a darkened, midnight alley are just two of the signposts the film rolls out, among a completely fabricated secondary story about a young Rio (Jake Shur) and his older sister Sara (Leila George) along for the proverbial ride against the torrents of gunslinger history.
While this fictionalized addendum to the last days of Garrett and Billy the Kid sounds like something that would normally cheapen a film, it doesn’t. For the most part, The Kid is a largely entertaining swerve through alternative history, confident in its direction and adrenalized by an electric Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett, whose performance outsizes most of the rest of the film. When he scowls and pulls out his guns and screams at the top of his lungs, trying to maintain order in the various violent showdowns that seem to follow him around daily, the film comes alive. It’s a showy, burned-in piece of acting that, in its absence, makes one wish he were in every scene.
Alas, Hawke is a secondary character to the outlaw-king Billy the Kid. Inhabiting the role in all his cut-rate Keanu Reeves terribleness, Dane DeHaan nearly shutters the rest of the film. Becoming the unlikely guardian to young Rio when Billy and his crew stumble across the brother and sister on the lam from some even worse people, the kids become witness to the feud between Billy and Pat as it escalates to jail breaks, more killing and, ultimately, a redemption of goodness for one of them.
Yellowed teeth and all, DeHaan’s Billy the Kid owes more to Emilio Estevez in Young Guns (1988) than any of his own creation. Or maybe Point Break (1991). Either way, it’s an envisioning of the outlaw with a snide and carefree laughter that never makes one want to be in the same room with him, even though the film twists and turns for the viewer to identify or appreciate his clearly defined codes of good and bad.
However, D’Onofrio and writer Andrew Lanham don’t spend too much time with DeHaan, wisely alternating between Hawke’s seething indignation of society’s fault in creating violence and Rio’s desperate mission to re-unite with his sister once she’s taken by the bad men hunting her. Once the film focuses on these two, it really tightens into a compelling adventure story.
Directed with a clean sense of humor and a high tolerance for violence, The Kid demonstrates D’Onofrio has checked off another genre box. His 2010 debut, Don’t Go In the Woods, featured an uneasy mix of horror and musical. Being a more straightforward example of genre, The Kid mostly succeeds in its devouring of the Western without self-reflexive nods or post-modern touches. Now, if we could get a complete Ethan Hawke-as-Pat Garrett film, please.
The Kid opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, March 8 at the Cinemark Legacy and West Plano locations. Visit the official site for more information.