For any parent who has ever had a child frustratingly idolize a glorified delinquent, The Kid is the movie for you. A western about the final year of Billy the Kid’s life, this Vincent D’Onofrio-directed film is really a moral parable about deciding what kind of person to be if you’re only two options seem to be doing bad things for what you tell yourself are the right reasons or holding yourself to a higher standard regardless of circumstance.
These two competing worldviews are represented in the form of Billy the Kid (a perfectly cast Dane DeHaan), an outlaw whose initial cause was just before being corrupted by a gunslinger’s bloodlust, and Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke, excellent as always), the upstanding member of the community given the job of Sheriff and charged with bringing Billy to justice.
The titular kid forced to choose between the two is a 14-year-old named Rio (newcomer Jake Schurr) on the run with his sister Sara (Leila George) from a monstrous uncle (an unrecognizable, shockingly hammy Chris Pratt). Rio killed his drunk, abusive father to save his mom and sister, but he waited too long. The mom had already been beaten to death by that point. Their uncle doesn’t care about any of that, though – they killed his brother, they deserve to die.
Fleeing for their lives, they happen upon Billy’s gang right as they are captured by Pat’s posse. As a result, Rio and Sara instantly become impossibly entangled with both sides of the conflict.
That makes The Kid one of those historical movies which uses a fictional third party to offer an alternate point of view. Billy and Pat were very real; Rio and his entire family are creations of screenwriter Andrew Lanham’s imagination. The overall impact of combining the two is a fairly effective deconstruction of the Billy the Kid myth, presenting a wildly charismatic figure with an obvious appeal to the 14-year-old in all of us. However, the more you get to know him the more you see his loneliness, recognize the pattern in his self-aggrandizing lies, and mourn his ultimately fatal inability to change.
Pat, meanwhile, is the comparatively boring paragon of virtue. He’s the type of lawman who once killed a drunkard in self-defense, instantly reported it to the Sheriff, was told to go home since he didn’t actually do anything wrong, yet still feels guilt and regret over it, striving to be a better person than he was on that day all those years ago. He tells this story to Rio as an example of how to process the moral weight of your actions. Billy, meanwhile, tells Rio a far different story about the first man he ever killed, painting it as justifiable and not something worth regretting.
What’s a kid to do with that kind of mixed parenting?
Yet despite all of this obvious moralizing, The Kid manages to still work as a rather engaging western. Billy’s inevitable prison break is just as riveting here as it is in both Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Young Guns II. D’Onofrio effectively amps up the tension in one memorable sequence in which Pat Garrett’s team is nearly overrun by a small-town mob. We see tantalizing wide vistas of Santa Fe, New Mexico. There’s not just one but two climactic shootouts.
On top of all that, when it comes to Pat and Billy the script broadly keeps with the actual historical events, far more than Young Guns II does in its depiction of the same period of Billy’s’ life. They still take some creative liberties, of course, but not as many as you might expect, especially considering the main character is a fictional 14-year-old, not Billy the Kid.
However, there are some lowlights holding the film back from greatness. The moral messaging is too heavy-handed. Pratt’s bizarre performance doesn’t completely work. He’s clearly crazy and delivers a memorably unhinged speech about, of all things, bluebirds, but flashing wild eyes and punctuating every sentence with the word “fuck” does not a good villain make. If it did, Quentin Tarantino would have played one himself by now.
Moreover, the forced integration of Rio into the larger story of Pat and Billy leads to several truly awkward bits. The Kid, for example, certainly has the first “Hey, right before I, a character you barely known, hang to death let me impart this important bit of exposition so you can get to the next plot point” scene I’ve ever seen. Rio’s sister Sara goes from fierce protector to damsel in distress a tad too quickly.
And so on.
However, my biggest fear going into The Kid was I would walk away wishing it had simply been a Billy the Kid movie instead of some weird parable about a fictional kid who looks up to both Billy and Pat Garrett. But there are already plenty of strict Billy the Kid movies. The Kid, by taking an alternate approach to the story, stands out as a surprisingly worthy addition to the pack. It remains a bit of a mystery to me as to why Lionsgate is giving it next to no promotion. (The possible answer: ongoing financial woes and recent layoffs.) This western is flawed, sure, but still easy to recommend to any fans of the genre or the Billy the Kid mythos.
My Rating (Out of Five): ★★★½
Shameless Plug: I previously wrote a retrospective on both Young Guns and Young Guns II. Now would be a good time to check it out if you missed it last year. Not to go all Laura Linney in Truman Show on you, but I’ve read other articles – this one’s the best.
Have you seen The Kid yet? Can you not stop staring at Chris Pratt’s beard in the publicity stills? Or are you still stuck on the whole “the guy who played Kingpin directed this!” of it all? Let me know in the comments.