The title of The Kid refers both to the real-life Billy the Kid (1859-1881) and to the movie’s fictional 14-year-old protagonist, Rio, who kills his own abusive father in the chaotic first scene. Pursued by their father’s bad-news brother, Uncle Grant (Chris Pratt), Rio and his older sister, Sara (Leila George) soon find themselves in the middle of a shootout between Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke).
The premise of the screenplay, by Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle), from a story by Lanham and director Vincent D’Onofrio, is that Rio (newcomer Jake Schur) learns vital life lessons from both the outlaw and the lawman. He first idolizes Billy, a fearless and amoral force of nature, and later comes to realize the wisdom of Garrett’s more complex moral judgments.
That said, there are plenty of shootouts, a jail break and a hanging that’s filmed from a striking, if not shocking, new perspective. D’Onofrio, the veteran actor (Jurassic World) whose only previous feature as a director was a little-seen horror film, seems comfortable with the vistas, streets and barrooms of the mythic Old West, and The Kid is a good-looking film that unspools at a measured pace. (D’Onofrio gives himself a modest cameo.)
The ambitious screenplay is full of mini monologues about fate and morality, and for once DeHaan’s tendency to chew the scenery is put to good use. Billy is a performer who plays to the crowds who have already mythologized him, and he has a philosophical streak that defies the historical character but works well here. Hawke, meanwhile, continues in the vein of First Reformed, portraying another determined self-doubter whose pronouncements seem intended in part to convince himself of what matters.
Pratt, who has just a handful of scenes, is clearly on board just to enjoy playing a villain who fancies himself a bigger man than he is. Singer-songwriter-actor Ben Dickey (Blaze) plays Garrett’s sidekick and provides an end-credits song worth staying to hear.
As the siblings, Schurr and George don’t let their flashy co-stars steal their spotlight, and each turns in a fine calling-card performance that ought to get them more work.
The Kid isn’t quite as weighty as some of its dialogue, and it’s not quite as exciting as the best western shoot-’em-ups, but it finds its own middle meta ground. It’s unlikely to play theaters more than a week, but if you miss its big-screen run, keep it in mind for streaming later this year, maybe on a binge with Natalie Portman’s own intriguing neo-western, Jane Got a Gun.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande