Simplicity of form and complexity of character make this a classic western worth seeing​

David G. Hughes on Vincent D’Onofrio’s ‘The Kid’ (2019)

The Kid is fine evidence of the riotous time that actors Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke and Chris Pratt must have had when toiling in the desert heat for The Magnificent Seven (Antoine Fuqua, 2016). With D’Onofrio now sitting in the director’s chair, they’ve reunited in the genre sandbox that American thespians love to play in – the Western. Like Fuqua’s fun spin on a classic western, itself a remake of the Japanese jidaigeki Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), the boys are back for a fresh take on the old frontier legend of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Yet, unlike the seminal Sam Peckinpah film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), D’Onofrio is less interested in brooding existential dualism and more the coming-of-age for an adolescent in a world of violence and corruption. This adolescent is Rio Cutler (Jake Schur), who were are introduced to in an act of patricide against his abusive, drunkard father. Forced to abandon his home, he and his older sister Sara (Leila George) go on the run from the prospect of lawful punishment and the vindictive pursuit of Uncle Grant (a villainous Chris Pratt behind a bushy beard). It is at this point – the loss of innocence – that Rio and Sara inadvertently step into the ballad of righteous lawman Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) and Devilish outlaw Billy the Kid (Dan DeHaan). What is otherwise the prime cat-and-mouse concern for storytellers is made a sub-plot to the personality development of this young boy. In this mesh of history and fiction, Rio is thus presented with a multitude of male father figures, all at war with each other and each representing contradicting conceptions of manhood to an impressionable child. D’Onofrio has woven a neat take, with each male character serving a symbolic role – the violent past (Uncle Grant), the righteous path (Pat Garrett) and the path of no return (Billy the Kid). The Kid is a story about the choices a boy must make in order to become a man, about the person he wants to be – “I need you to picture who you’re gonna be when all this is over,” Sara tells her brother.

It’s a very tight theme for a film that, despite the small production, elevates itself beyond the usual straight-to-video western fare. The Kid achieves this not only through its stellar A-list cast but its big heart and visual splendour. Cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd is exquisite, classic in its appreciation of the desert landscape. Visual flair shines through the film; there is a real sense of colour and vibrancy, from the choice of fonts to the recording of passionate red skies and earthly yellow browns for idyllic lodgings, inspired by Thomas Cole.

D’Onofrio is uninhibited in his vision, boldly re-working legend and getting as much as he can out of limited resources. As an actor-director, it’s not surprising to see that his cast seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, likely taking time out of larger projects to lend a name and have some fun. Particularly so with Pratt playing against type as a rotten-teethed villain. Hawke, in his third western in as many years, is particularly good. Never one for a tough-guy image, his innate sensitivity sits just below Pat’s otherwise deadly disposition in a stoic performance.

In a world in which every western must be revisionist to earn critical plaudits, D’Onofrio’s straight-and-narrow approach will garner no love but is done with affective earnestness. The Kid has more in common with the industrious, unpretentious termite films of Budd Boetticher, like Seven Men From Now (1956), or the work of Anthony Mann. It’s also better than contemporary like-minded mid-budget attempts such as Forsaken (2015), starring Kiefer and Donald Sutherland. The Kid’s strength is its simplicity of form alongside its complexity of character; it’s what you might call “old-fashioned”. It grabs a simple story with a focused theme and holds it tight, existing firmly in a tradition of westerns obsessed by themes of patricide, redemption and violence. French director Jacques Audiard recently received praise for depicting men pissing in the foreground of a grand vista in his “Neo-Western” The Sisters Brothers (2018). How else to read this other than snarky “myth-busting” towards the genre’s convention of beauty? D’Onofrio, on the other hand, is not seeking to dismantle the myth, legends or resplendence of the western, but to rejuvenate them by the hand of a man who has clearly garnered a deep value from them.

There is autobiographical resonance in this tale for D’Onofrio, who grew up first with his father and then his step-father, who were apparently polar opposites in character. The choice between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that functions as the dramatic crux of this story naturally appeals to D’Onofrio’s experience, a story about the influence of disparate males in a boys life. More than that, the western is the quintessential American saga too, the story they tell themselves to make sense of a place and a time. It is a genre elevated, always, to the level of national consciousness. So a story about choosing the right path, whether for the individual or for the nation, will always remain a prescient one.

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David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.