“When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” These words close the classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and they a make fitting valediction for frontier mythology. Men like the Earps, the James Gang, and Billy the Kid have received so much posthumous embellishment that it’s almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Where dime store novels and Monument Valley movies slathered varnish on popular perception of the Old West, modern revisionist work has sought to strip it to the grain. Vincent D’Onofrio’s The Kid tries to split that difference, with a script that humanizes and reduces a mythic figure, while also hitting the familiar notes that have made Billy the Kid larger than life. The result is an uneven yet entertaining movie that can’t quite pin down what it wants to be.
The story is largely seen through the eyes of Rio (Jake Schur), a doe-eyed fourteen-year-old boy. Rio and his older sister Sara (Leila George) live on the run, taking a dark family secret in tow. Their sleazebag uncle (Chris Pratt) and his gang vow to hunt them down. Early on, Rio and Sara fall into the orbit of two Western legends: Impish bank robber Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke), the dry, grouchy law dog determined to capture or kill him. In dire need of both a gunfighting surrogate and spiritual compass, Rio finds himself torn between the disparate men.
History has never known what to make of Billy the Kid. Many of the gaps in his history get caulked with speculation. Was he a charismatic ragamuffin, who stole for the adventure and only killed when cornered? Or, was the Kid a pure psychotic whose brazen demeanor concealed a stunted and frightened child? This movie wants to play it both ways: Sometimes, the Kid gets tethered to a shambling sense of morality. He loves a woman, expresses remorse for less deserving victims, and even waxes philosophical about his own insidiousness. Alternately, the outlaw acts like the legend he would become. He struts like a peacock when captured, and boldly predicts his escape. If the judgment of history can’t pin down Billy the Kid, the filmmakers don’t really know what to do with him, either. This hamstrings the film with jarring shifts in tone and pace.
That aside, The Kid has much to enjoy. D’Onofrio sure paints a pretty picture: His New Mexican frontier pops with rose-colored canyons and rolling hills of bluestem grass. Hawke clearly has fun as the surly, scenery-chewing Garrett. Pratt gets cast wayyyy against type, and it works surprisingly well. The inevitable showdown is exciting and well-staged, although the story’s epilogue falls completely flat. It’s as if the script doesn’t know what to do, so it just shrugs its shoulders and fades to black.
The characters in The Kid seem oddly aware that what they do in life will be enlarged in death. Songs will be sung and stories will be spun, and this colors the way these people speak and act in key moments. It’s an odd touch, as most of these desperate men did what they did without any sense of posterity in mind. The Kid doesn’t know if it should give us the fact or the legend, and this robs an otherwise compelling Western of some of its impact.