The Kid is a well-intentioned attempt to make a contemplative western, but ultimately mistakes gritty violence and broodiness for substance.
Vincent D'Onofrio gets behind the camera for only the second time on The Kid, a western loosely inspired by the real-life cat and mouse game between lawman Patrick Garrett and Henry McCarty, aka. Billy the Kid. D'Onofrio, of course, is a renowned actor thanks to his performances in movies like Full Metal Jacket and Men in Black (and, more recently, Marvel's Daredevil Netflix series), but his directorial debut on the 2010 horror musical Don't Go in the Woods was a critical misfire and has been largely forgotten since it came out. Sadly, his second film as a director may be doomed to a similar fate. The Kid is a well-intentioned attempt to make a contemplative western, but ultimately mistakes gritty violence and broodiness for substance.
Newcomer Jake Schur stars in The Kid as Rio Cutler, a young boy who's forced to go on the run with his sister, Sara (Leila George), after Rio shoots their father in a failed attempt to stop him from beating their mother to death. The pair find themselves pursued by their vicious uncle, Grant (Chris Pratt), and his band of thugs, who're determined to make the siblings pay for killing their boss' brother. Along the way, Rio and Sara wind up crossing paths with Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and his gang of bandits, who are likewise on the run. In Billy's case, however, he's being pursed by his old friend-turned enemy and Lincoln County sheriff, Patrick Garrett (Ethan Hawke).
Shortly after, Billy is captured by Patrick and his men, who agree to take Rio and Sara to Santa Fe, under the pretense that the pair have been separated from their family (who were headed there) during a storm. Realizing it's only a matter of time before Patrick discovers the truth, Rio and Sara escape at the first opportunity they have. Unfortunately, they end up walking straight into a trap laid by Grant, who then kidnaps Sara and leaves her younger brother to suffer, knowing the dark fate that awaits her. Rio must therefore decide: will he become an outlaw and free Billy so they can rescue Sara together, or will he turn to Patrick for help and reveal the truth about what he did?
On paper, The Kid has the makings of an interesting coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Old American Frontier and the battle between a real-life lawman and law-breaker; it's the execution where things fall apart. The film tries to present Patrick Garrett and Billy the Kid as being flip sides of the same coin, in an effort to illustrate that Rio will have to make decisions that are difficult to live with, regardless of whether he chooses to embrace the life of an outlaw or a lawman. Unfortunately, in doing so, The Kid gets bogged down in ponderous conversations and exchanges that add little of value to its narrative and provide limited insight into the main characters. The pacing suffers for it, making the movie at large feel somewhat pretentious and longer than its fairly brisk runtime would suggest.
Most of these problems stem from the script by D'Onofrio and his cowriter, Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle). The Kid's screenplay brings to mind something like True Detective's infamous second season, in the sense that it offers all the darkness and moody atmosphere that one expects from certain types of genre fare (in this case, a revisionist western), yet lacks a compelling plot to make its gloomy pontificating meaningful. It occasionally takes a stab at digging deeper into its characters' psychology and even acknowledges Rio's post-traumatic stress at times, but too often cuts these scenes short to make room for another grim moment of people being shot or yelling aggressively at one another. The film is even worse when it comes to its treatment of women, who exist here for little reason other than to be abused, assaulted, and/or hurt in some way by the men around them.
D'Onofrio fares a bit better as a director here and does a respectable job of bringing The Kid's dangerous setting to cinematic life, with the aid of a quietly haunting score by Latham and Shelby Gaines (who also did the live score for Hawke's stage revival of A Lie of the Mind). The film struggles when it comes to staging engaging shoot-outs or action sequences of any particular variety in fresh or engaging ways, but is sturdy in its quieter moments when characters are traveling from here to there. D'Onofrio shot much of The Kid on-location in New Mexico and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd (who worked on Daredevil and The Defenders) paints the state's landscapes in rich tones, especially in the evening and early morning. It's the daytime scenes where the movie starts to look a little cheap and feels more like a collection of sets, as opposed to a living and breathing vision of the Old West.
Like many actors-turned directors, D'Onofrio takes a performance-driven approach to his storytelling here. Thing is, The Kid is a film that mistakes loud acting for good acting. This results in many a scene where people aggressively emote in some manner - be it by crying, raging out, guffawing, or (as mentioned earlier) simply yelling - yet fail to leave much of an emotional impact. Indeed, there's something slightly off about how the characters behave here in general. Patrick and Billy, for example, are meant to be a grizzled "cop" and charismatic criminal, but come off feeling more like a grumpy teacher and his (annoying) misbehaving student. The film has a talented cast, but its actors (which includes D'Onofrio, in a very small role) never seem to have a firm grip on who they're supposed to be playing. Again, the issue appears to stem from the script, more than anything else.
As far as misfires go, The Kid isn't terrible so much as it rings hollow. There have been better westerns made in recent years (heck, D'Onofrio, Hawke, and Pratt stared in one of them - namely, Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven), many of which manage to de-romanticize the Old West in more inventive and groundbreaking ways than this film does. D'Onofrio deserves credit for aiming to make a western with something on its mind and not just empty thrills, but he's guilty of equating grittiness with saying something of value here. Those in the mood for a pensive western might find themselves more forgiving of the movie's flaws, but are still probably better off saving this one for a viewing at home down the road.
The Kid is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 99 minutes long and is rated R for violence and language.
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