Monday, March 18, 2019

Vincent D'Onofrio's Directorial Debut The Kid Is A Forgettable Trip To The West

Back in the early 1990s, Unforgiven was like a shot heard 'round the world for Westerns as it provided a more contemplative take on the once-omnipresent genre that saw Clint Eastwood do a realistic deconstruction of his fabled Man With No Name persona. Since then, most Westerns have used Unforgiven as a creative touchstone, especially in terms of being more conscious of the gruesome violence that transpired in the Old West compared to many classic Westerns. Such widespread imitations of Unforgiven have meant that the elements of Unforgiven that were once trailblazing are now themselves old hat. By contrast, the best recent Westerns have been films like Rango, True Grit and Slow West that have established their own unique identities rather than do their own variation on the somber contemplative mood of Unforgiven for the umpteenth time.

The Kid, Vincent D'Onofrio's directorial debut that does not involve either Charlie Chaplin or Spencer Breslin, is another example of a modern Western that sticks close to the Unforgiven playbook with its sordid tale of two siblings trying to survive in the Old West. Those two siblings are Rio Culter (Jake Schur) and Sara Culter (Leila George) and they're on the run from their murderous Uncle, Grant Cutler (Chris Pratt). While evading their bloodthirsty relative, they run into the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and a lawman, Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke), who wants to bring Billy to justice.

The two Culter youngsters get swept up in Billy's story, which soon entails lots of bullets, run-in's with the law and Rio, once he's faced with the prospect of having to save his sister, eventually contemplating what truly defines a legend in this lawless land. This yarn of a boy being forced to become a man and confront the humanity of mythic figures ends up being all-around forgettable more often than not. If this was a tale a cowboy told his fellow travel companions around the campfire, the other cowboys would likely nod off or go check on the cattle before it was over. Partially this is due to how large swathes of the feature feel too derivative of other Westerns, neither screenwriter Andrew Lanham nor director Vincent D'Onofrio can seem to crack how to make The Kid stand out on its own terms.

For instance, on a visual level, The Kid's vision of the Old West feels woefully generic. The assorted sets look fine in terms of craftsmanship, but there's little in the way of one-of-a-kind individuality to be found in the designs of the saloons, the shops, the jails, or most of the other locals that Rio Culter and company occupy. Too often the environments feel like they could have come from any run-of-the-mill Western movie made in the last fifteen years or so. A similar lack of identity plagues the costume design, whose lack of personality especially stands out given that 2018 delivered a pair of Westerns, The Sisters Brothers and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, with impeccable costume design that delivered outfits never before seen in Westerns.

Lanham's screenwriting fares a bit better in terms of delivering some memorable details, particularly in regards to how Billy the Kid is depicted as someone who'd like to be a Jack Sparrow-esque figure that keeps taking people by surprise with his wit and skills but constantly ends up being a normal human being whose plans never work out 100% correctly. There's a vast chasm between who Billy the Kid wants to be and who he actually is and that's the most interesting part of the screenplay, as is the characters amusing rapport with haunted lawman Pat Garrett. But those details aren't prominent enough in The Kid to overcome its other storytelling weaknesses, which, unfortunately, include the primary storyline surrounding the Culter siblings.

Because they're so often just lingering in the background while the Billy the Kid storyline plays out, the Culter siblings are too often treated as props in the story itself rather than characters we can get emotionally engaged in. This is particularly a problem with Sara, who's reduced to a damsel-in-distress role for the last half-hour or so. These characters and their story never merge together cohesively with the plotline surrounding Billy the Kid and that's the real issue with The Kid that drags down the whole affair. That's a shame since some good performances from Ethan Hawke and Dane DeHaan emerge here, though Chris Pratt playing against type as the vicious Uncle Grant Cutler never clicked together for me. The fact that The Kid is the umpteenth Western to be patterning itself off the tone and style of Unforgiven is certainly a problem but the movies got plenty much bigger issues related to a lack of creativity and storytelling cohesion that end up making this the kind of movie that's unlikely to elicit a cry of "Yee-haw!" from people wh owatch it.

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