There have been some 20 movie depictions of the outlaw William Bonney, a k a Billy the Kid, but actor-turned-director Vincent D’Onofrio’s up-and-down new Western drama “The Kid” is unique — in that it’s not really about Billy the Kid.
Oh, Billy is a character, played with a scruffy charm by Dane DeHaan. But Billy’s a side character in the fictional story of a boy named Rio (played by newcomer Jake Schur, who’s one of the movie’s producers).
The movie begins with Rio, age 15, and his older sister Sarah (Leila George, D’Onofrio’s daughter), crying in terror, because their drunken father is beating their mother to death. Rio gets hold of a pistol and shoots their father dead. Then their uncle, Grant (Chris Pratt, trying his hand at being the heavy), starts attacking the siblings — and is only held off when Rio slashes his face with a piece of broken glass.
The two make their escape, heading toward Santa Fe. When they seek refuge in a cabin en route, they wake up to find the cabin occupied by Billy the Kid and his crew — and with Billy’s nemesis, lawman Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) and his posse outside. Eventually, Garrett captures Billy and the members of his gang the posse doesn’t perforate with bullets. Garrett aims to deposit one in Santa Fe for a hanging, and take Billy back to Lincoln, Neb., to face justice.
Rio and Sarah go along for the ride, careful not to confess to Garrett about their father. In Santa Fe, though, Rio and Sarah are ambushed by Grant — who tosses Rio aside and kidnaps Sarah to be a whore for his crew. Rio’s only hope of finding Sarah is Billy, so Rio rides to Lincoln to help him escape Garrett’s custody one more time.
Besides being convoluted in the story department, as evidenced by that travel-heavy synopsis, Andrew Lanham’s script is a ponderous load of speeches. Billy expounds on the nature of being an outlaw, commiserating with Rio as a fellow orphaned soul. Garrett yammers on about the serious business of killing, and how every life a man takes scars the taker. Even Uncle Grant prattles on about bluebirds, for no good reason.
D’Onofrio stages a dynamic gunfight, and the moments of gunplay have a propulsive energy. He also knows good acting talent, and gets strong performances by Hawke, DeHaan and George, while also helping Schur through to a solid debut.
The problem with “The Kid” is that the relationship between Rio and Billy never feels authentic, kindred spirits in a cruel world, feels like a Screenwriting 101 exercise, rather than an organic part of the story. Billy gets his due, but it feels weirdly disconnected from the drama that’s unfolding.
Opens Friday in select theaters, including the Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), Megaplex at The District (South Jordan) and AMC Layton Hills 9 (Layton). Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 100 minutes.