Even before Pat Garrett fired off the shot that ended his life, Billy The Kid was already a legend. And the most interesting part about this latest version of his exploits, The Kid, which opens in theaters on 26th April, is how Vincent D’Onofrio, another actor turned director, approaches the legend. The very material of the legend. D’Onofrio does it so self-consciously that, at a crucial moment, he has Ethan Hawke, who plays the sheriff who killed Billy, uttering the words that remind us of that famous “Print the Legend”: “It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters the story they tell when you’re gone”.
The Kid opens with a disturbing scene of domestic, or gender violence, in which a boy (the debutante Jake Schur) ends up killing his alcoholic father, to save his sister (Leila George, daughter of D’Onofrio), in addition to injuring his evil uncle (Chris Pratt), who will spend the movie chasing them all over New Mexico, until reaching Santa Fe. But the teenager on the run is not, as you would expect, Billy, but Rio, a fictional character, whose moral crossroads D’Onofrio tries to place in the center of the film. Rio, and his sister, do not take long to meet Billy The Kid himself, impeccably played by Dane Valerian DeHaan. The boy recognizes him instantly from the newspapers, and the Kid assures him that half the things that say about him are fake (news). Although he does acknowledge that he has already done plenty enough to appear on the front page. DeHaan portrays the Kid’s smiling features, which can be seen in his most famous photograph and the same one that led Arthur Penn to immortalize him in 1958 in The Left Handed Gun, without knowing that the image was a negative, and as such, his image had been inverted (only discovered in 1986). Paul Newman, who was also too old for the role, had to learn to draw a six-shooter with the left. Kris Kristofferson decided not to bother in what is still the best version of his adventures: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah’s classic, with a soundtrack by Dylan.
It looks like D’Onofrio, who reserves a small role for himself in The Kid, had no desire to measure up against such a gigantic reference as Peckinpah’s film is. Centered on the outlaw’s last death rattle – from his capture by Pat Garrett, his inevitable escape and the final ambush, D’Onofrio evokes episodes from Billy’s past, crudely rebuilt by Hawke’s character (the Lincoln County War), he dresses up Billy’s love affair Mexican woman like a soap opera, and deliberately obviates some fundamental features of his personality, such as Ramón J. Sender’s masterful description in El Forajido adolescente (The Teenage Outlaw – reissued by Password, with an excellent prologue by Fernando Savater), a fictionalized portrait of Billy on his eternal American exile: “Billy had a sense of solidarity that was not family or clan but human kind, excluding the Indians.” The fact that Billy, the boyish bandit would really love to play at cowboys the Indians, but actually killing them in reality, is something we don’t even get a whiff of in The Kid, and just in case, there isn’t a single feather to be seen. But it doesn’t matter too much either. The interesting thing, as we said – in addition to the acting, with Chris Pratt playing a somewhat unlikely villain (complete with a psychotic monologue about sparrows that really hits the mark) – is the confrontation between the legend which Pat Garrett himself contributed to soon after the Kid’s death by publishing his memoirs with his version of the murder, and the fiction of the film itself, personified by Rio and his sister. A tension that comes to a head when Rio, a fictional character, saves the life of Garrett, a character as legendary as it is historical.
Andrew Lanham, accredited screenwriter of The Kid, jumps in with Rio’s shot to save Garrett, one of the golden rules of any more or less historical story: Fiction and History can coexist, but the former can never interfere with the latter. There is always poetic license of course, since Garrett, also in historical reality, lived many more years. Apart from this peculiar tug-of-war between reality and fiction, which is the elastic stuff of every legend, The Kid is a lyric-efficient addition to titles (such as Damsel by the Zellner brothers, or Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers), which revalidate the King of genres, certifying that the western or the neo-western, that is to say cinema itself, is far from dead, but is in fact very alive. Just like Billy the Kid.