The Kid: Featured

Film has captured the life and death of Billy the Kid numerous times. A quick non-scientific count led to me to identify over 50 films that feature Billy as a character. These include not one but two films in which Billy tangles with a vampire. There is also one where he fights a werewolf. I do not believe these movies are based on true stories, but I could be wrong.

Point being, THE KID treads oft-visited ground. As you can see from the supernatural mentioned above, even merging fact and fiction has been done. Telling a tale with familiar facts does not necessarily mean trouble, of course. Check out World War II for just one example of a stone that seems to never run out of blood. However, to make the film worthwhile, you have to tell the tale in a new way. So, does THE KID manage it?

The Kid: Sara and Rio
Leila George and Jake Schur huddle together against the elements in a scene from THE KID. (Courtesy of Lionsgate Films)

The Idea Behind THE KID

Rio (Jake Schur) and Sara Cutter (Leila George) hide in a bedroom when their drunk and angry father returns one night. Convinced their mom plans to leave, their dad begins to brutally beat her. When a gun skitters free amongst the domestic violence, Rio grabs it and tries to save his mom. Moments later, hearing the gunshot, their Uncle Grant (Chris Pratt) comes running. He finds the scene and immediately attempts to take vengeance for his brother on his nephew. Facing their own death, Sara and Rio have to go on the run to escape their angry uncle.

Before long they encounter Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and his gang. Despite his outlaw life, Billy proves welcoming. He pledges to ensure they get to where they are going, Santa Fe. Unfortunately, newly appointed Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) and his men catch up with Billy before the gang and the Cutlers can even leave the shack where they are catching a nap. Billy ends up in chains, but Rio convinces Garrett to take him and his sister with them, glossing over the earlier patricide. A Wild West road trip ensues as Rio struggles with his two new influences — Garrett and Billy — and he and his sister try to stay ahead of Uncle Grant.

The Kid: Billy the Kid
Dane DeHaan flashes those less than pearly whites in a moment from THE KID. (Courtesy of Lionsgate Films)

Writing THE KID

In his third script, Andrew Lanham delivers a strong meat and potatoes product. His previous two scripts — GLASS CASTLE and THE SHACK — proved disappointing adaptations of popular books. A complex story resistant to simple conclusions seemed to undo him in CASTLE. SHACK, on the other hand, came from dubious source material making it difficult for anyone to make the thing work.

Here, working largely off his own thoughts with history providing a vague structure, he seems much more equal to the material. The result is a solid script that offers some chewy speeches for Hawke, Pratt and DeHaan and a couple of standout lines for George and Schur. This is not the kind of writing that sets the world on fire,  but it gives all the performers a solid platform.

Lanham also proves to be a bit of trickster when it comes to structure. He plays well with tempo and momentum, giving the screenplay quiet moments without letting it drag. He punctuates each beat with quick flashes of often brutal violence that jar the viewer but never overstay the welcome. In the climax, he wisely subverts expectations in a way that does not give us as viewers what we expected or what we wanted but, nonetheless, feels very satisfying when you think about it.

THE KID: Billy and Pat
Ethan Hawke arrests Dane DeHaan in a scene from THE KID. (Courtesy of Lionsgate Films)

Casting the Leads of THE KID

Ethan Hawke continues to quietly assert his current career renaissance with yet another strong stripped down performance. His Garrett is often taciturn to the point of near unpleasantness, but he never loses sight of the character’s fundamental humanity. His reading of two back to back short lines, “Now, they’ll come,” and “The people,” wonderfully nails the vulnerability at the center of a man who is literally in the midst of making himself a legend and has the foresight to know the burden that comes with that.

THE KID is the first movie in some time that I have seen that makes good use of DeHaan’s odd unsettling charisma. Whether he is capturing Billy’s natural penchant for playing the outlaw celebrity, his ruthlessness, or the vast sense of emptiness he carries around with him like his personal albatross, DeHaan finally feels well cast here. The last time he seemed as good for a role was about five years ago.

First-time actor Schur, as the titular kid, gets better the more his moral dilemma comes into the light. He struggles a bit playing scared, but once he gets to take some measure of control, you can really feel him grow into the part. By the time he is firing a six shooter into the air in the middle of the day, I felt he had found a good groove for Rio to work in.

THE KID: Pat Garrett
Ethan Hawke flashes his hand cannons in a scene from THE KID. (Courtesy of Lionsgate Films)

Casting The Rest of the Callsheet

It is a shame that Leila George ends up reduced to a damsel in the film’s second half because I thought she was excellent during the first half. Alas, once she is reduced to a captive essentially demanding to be left behind because she’s already been “ruined,” a lot of her talent feels wasted.

Pratt does very interesting and specific work as the slimy cruel Grant. For a long time, I found myself repeatedly wondering who he reminded me of. In the last third, it connected. He was given a Vincent D’Onofrio style spin on the villain. Between this and his Kurt Russell-like voice work as Rex Dangervest in THE LEGO MOVIE 2, Pratt seems to be developing an interesting ability to catch the essence of his co-stars and repackage it as his own. It could become an interesting thing to watch as Pratt’s increasing acting skills engage in a footrace with what is rumored to be his dicey political leanings.

Speaking of D’Onofrio, the director shows up in a small role as a local lawman who has very little interest in letting Billy go to trial, especially in another city. The role is not much, but I just love the way the actor can wield his voice at this point in his career.

The Kid: Grant and Garrett
Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke skin their smoke wagons in THE KID. (Courtesy of Lionsgate Films)

Directing THE KID

I am intrigued by D’Onofrio’s work here. He is not a flashy director, but he has a definite eye and does some subtle things with the lens. My favorite bit is that the camera literally is never still. Even in large frame steady shots, it gently drifts slightly diagonally. It is an interesting way to give us Rio’s perspective on things. Even in his most steadfast moments, the ground does not feel quite solid for him. Therefore, even in the camera’s steadies moments, we have a bit of movement. This wobble gives us that sense of being constantly unsettled.

Unsurprisingly, D’Onofrio’s directorial instincts seem to give actors a good amount of space to present their work. He loves the landscape of the Wild West, but he is far more interested in showcasing his actors. He uses the space to tell us more about them, to dwarf lawmen against a vast sky at one moment or to trap Rio under a gallows staircase the next. It is a gently assured debut.

Except, it is not gentle, when it comes to violence. At those moments, gentleness has nothing to do with it. The camera becomes aggressive and scattered. Participants dip in and out of frame, sound pops and echoes, confusing one’s sense of space. Again, it all feels like an intentional choice to make it clear how unnerving violence is, even in a place as violent as the Old West.

The Kid: Grant and Rio
Chris Pratt drags Jake Schur into the streets in a scene from THE KID. (Courtesy of Lionsgate Films)

That’s a Wrap!

Big splashy directorial debuts, like last year’s Bradley Cooper inaugural effort A STAR IS BORN, tend to get the headlines, the attention, and the awards. However, a steady solid debut like this should not slip between the cracks. There is a great amount to like in THE KID and very little to criticize. I definitely hope D’Onofrio directs another movie sooner rather than later.

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