The extended dance of death played out by lawman Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid has inspired countless accounts of varying authenticity in literature, cinema and primetime TV, ranging from Sam Peckinpah’s violently elegiac 1973 Western (featuring a singularly hunky Kris Kristofferson as the desperado also known as William Bonney) to “The Tall Man,” a 1960-’62 NBC series which fancifully imagined Garrett (Barry Sullivan) and Billy (Clu Gulager) as frontier frenemies in Lincoln, N.M.
It’s to the considerable credit of actor-turned-director Vincent D’Onofrio and screenwriter Andrew Lanham that they’ve come up with a satisfyingly fresh take on this familiar mythos in “The Kid,” a consistently involving and often exciting drama in which the two Wild West icons are presented from the p.o.v. of an impressionable adolescent who weighs the pros and cons of each man as a role model.
The title refers not to Billy the Kid — persuasively portrayed here as a cocksure fatalist with a self-aware streak by Dane DeHaan — but rather 14-year-old Rio Cutler (newcomer Jake Schur), who must go on the run with his older sister Sara (Leila George, D’Onofrio’s real-life daughter) after he fatally shoots their drunken father in a vain attempt to keep the rageaholic brute from beating their mother to death. Hot on their trail: Their equally ferocious Uncle Grant (Chris Pratt, impressively unhinged), who plans a monstrously cruel form of revenge for his murdered brother.
While fleeing to faraway Santa Fe, where they hope to connect with a friend of their mother’s, Rio and Sara find themselves sharing a secluded hideout with a gang led by Billy the Kid, whom Rio instantly recognizes because of the outlaw’s dime-novel notoriety. D’Onofrio boldly fuses history and hagiography when we get our first glimpse of Billy, who appears to us, from Rio’s perspective, as a golden-lit embodiment of the scruffy figure depicted in the most famous confirmed photo of the legendary outlaw. A nice touch: DeHaan’s Billy continues to look like the guy in that circa 1880 tintype – complete with battered hat and sweater — for most of the movie, even as his initial luster diminishes. Outlaws on the run, apparently, have few opportunities for wardrobe changes.
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Billy accepts Rio as a kindred spirit — and maybe a surrogate younger brother — but their bonding is interrupted when a posse led by newly appointed sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) arrives on the scene. After a shootout that diminishes Billy’s crew, Garrett captures the outlaw and his surviving men, and transports them, along with Rio and Sara, to a nearby town. Billy continues to be a dangerously smooth-talking charmer, even while restrained with manacles, and maintains a strong influence over Rio. But the youngster also warms, gradually and guardedly, to Garrett, and very nearly reveals to the lawman what he and his sister are running away from. Sara convinces him not to confide in Garrett, however. It doesn’t take long for both siblings to regret their silence.
Schur (son of Jordan Schur, one of the film’s producers) is appropriately compelling as his character is craftily positioned to appear, almost Zelig-like, during key episodes in the oft-told tale of Billy and Garrett. But while he does a creditable job of propelling the narrative, and George is aptly affecting as Sara, the most intriguing scenes in “The Kid” are those that shift the focus to DeHaan and Hawke, as the two well-matched actors illuminate the underlining themes of mythology and destiny in Lanham’s screenplay.
Right from the start, Billy indicates that he accepts the inevitability of his violent demise as the unavoidable price of his fame. He insists to a credulous Rio that most of what is said or written about him isn’t true. In the same breath, however, he adds: “I guess it don’t really matter, though. I’ve done enough.” Hawke, who dominates the film through dint of his ability to neatly balance authority, sympathy, and moral doubt, chides Billy, an old friend turned elusive quarry, for exploiting his infamy: “You know what it means when they start writing about you? You’re already dead.”
Thanks to standout work by DP Matthew J. Lloyd and editor Katharine McQuerrey, the shootouts and showdowns in “The Kid” are presented with more than enough kinetic flair to please fans of both traditional Westerns produced in the 1940s and ‘50s, and more recent examples, like the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven” (which, not coincidentally, also provided gainful employment for Hawke, Pratt, and D’Onofrio). But the action set pieces, too, are imbued with an awareness of legends and their consequences.
At one point, Garrett cunningly uses his own celebrity to draw a villain into a gunfight. Just a few scenes earlier, however, the lawman grimly acknowledges that what has sparked that celebrity will inspire others to match their gunmanship against his. “Won’t be long now,” he tells his faithful deputy (Benjamin Dickey, star of Hawke’s “Blaze”). What will happen? “People,” Garrett replies, then allows his voice to trail off. He doesn’t have to say anything else. His deputy understands. So do we.