The Legend of William H. Bonney Rides Again in ‘The Kid’

Hollywood has drank from the Billy the Kid trough in over fifty movies. Most of those films were B Westerns with older cowboy actors like Bob Steele and with little connection to that real life outlaw shot down at the age of 21. But Billy’s story has also been co-opted for social commentary. With the likes of Paul Newman in “The Left Handed Gun” and Kris Kristofferson in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” the Kid comes off as a misunderstood martyr to local capitalist interests.

The Kid,” Vincent D‘Onofrio’s third directorial effort, is neither of those. D’Onofrio constructs a well-paced Western with a cast of stars that sets out to tell the legend in a straightforward, entertaining and somewhat historically correct manner.

The other “kid” in this story, who is witness to Billy the Kid’s encounter with Sheriff Pat Garrett, is 14-year-old Rio (Jake Schur). This kid is on the run with his sister Sara (Leila George) from a viciously vengeful uncle, Grant Cutler (an almost unrecognizable Chris Pratt). Taking refuge in an abandoned shack, they awake to the presence of Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan). DeHaan is posed and lighted to resemble the famous ferrotype photo of Billy (William H. Bonney) leaning on his Winchester with his Colt revolver holstered at his side. Past Bonney movies have also attempted the same conceit, but DeHaan pulls it off better than even Emilio Estevez in “Young Guns.”

In fact, DeHaan’s portrayal captures the essence of Bonney with arresting verisimilitude. He’s charismatic, dirty, deadly, charming and narcissistic. All the stuff that legends in Hollywood westerns are made of. The real Billy the Kid was an orphan who found himself on the losing side of the Lincoln County Wars in southern New Mexico. He had a habit of murdering brutal thugs and corrupt lawmen, and escaping jail. His life famously came to an end when Marshal Pat Garrett ambushed him at the age of 21. Garrett was reputed to be a former friend.

“The Kid” sticks pretty close to the legend and the facts while never forgetting that it is still a Hollywood western. It tries to balance the best of both worlds, taking advantage of the stunning New Mexico landscape. The film is shot in the hills close to Santa Fe, but the nearby western street used to represent 1880’s Santa Fe looks more like Dodge City, lacking any hint of Hispanic heritage of the City Different. The traditional gunfight in the streets at the end of the film should have been rethought. Great Hollywood gunfights can be exhilarating and cathartic. This one falls a little flat.

Ethan Hawke is excellent as crusty Pat Garrett. Stoic and pragmatic, Hawke’s Garrett is the heart and hero of the film. His scenes with DeHaan flow with kinetic dialogue. The loquacious Bonney rattles the disgruntled moralistic Garrett.

Chris Pratt is a complete big-bearded male evil. Pratt is one of the most likable actors in film today, but he is reprehensible here. Both young Shur and Leila George capture the tragic innocence of their roles well.

Shot with a gritty verisimilitude against gorgeous southwestern mountains, “The Kid” is a worthy entry into the western genre, another chapter in the long running adaptation of the life of Billy the Kid.

It is believed that William Bonney was a sympathetic figure to the local Mexican population. He spoke Spanish. He was visiting his Mexican girlfriend the night he was shot down. They mourned his death. Perhaps the next cinematic chapter of Billy’s life can be told through the eyes of that underrepresented community.

The Kid” opens March 7 in select theaters.