Let Him Go works surprisingly well as visceral entertainment, a straightforward nouveau Western about good people done wrong. I’ll admit my low expectations going in, but damned if I didn’t get hooked by the performances, the sudden violence, and the film’s unabashedly simple morality. This might be potboiler cinema, but it’s really good potboiler cinema.
The movie begins in Norman Rockwell country: In 1963, retired lawman George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) lives on his idyllic Montana farm with wife Margaret (Diane Lane). It’s the kinda life where people blow on steaming coffee mugs and remark that there might be some weather a-blowin’ in. Their main joy cometh in the form of son James (Ryan Bruce), daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter), and grandson Jimmy (Bram and Otto Hornung). Unfortunately, ancient wisdom says that all things must end, and George Lorna’s tranquility meets a sudden and sad demise.
I don’t like to give away too much in the way of spoilers, so let me just say that tragedy forces Lorna and Jimmy into the gravitational pull of Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain). Donnie is–I can’t think of the technical term…a smoldering bag of shit? Margaret is outraged when she catches him smacking around Lorna and Jimmy, and crestfallen when he absconds with them altogether. Thus begins their interstate mystery to track down their precious grandson, who represents the last living remnant of their happy life.
Their journey takes them deep into North Dakota, where Donnie and his extended family live an ugly, insular existence. Turns out, the Weboys are a clan of hateful slack-jaws, headed by matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville). Blanche is–man, I forget the official definition–a rancorous, fire-breathing bitch? She swills booze and lobs insults through a never-ending haze of cigarette smoke. The film sets up a battle of wills between the Blackledges and Blanche, who is determined make Jimmy another lieutenant in her army of slobbering heathens.
Let Him Go couldn’t be more cut and dried if it divvied out white and black hats. Blanche is so evil, she makes Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance look like Bob Ross. But this is also where the film comes alive. Costner, Lane, and Manville are such strong personalities that it makes for tense, gripping drama.
Costner has enjoyed a late career renaissance playing variations of the Marlboro Man, a trend that continues here. George is a deceptively complex man, driven by a simple sense of decency. He speaks in spare sentences, each one imbued with strange profundity by Costner’s gravelly growl.
Meanwhile, Let Him Go represents an interesting character contrast for Diane Lane. Western fans will immediately remember her as a young sex worker in Lonesome Dove. Her Lorie was simultaneously naive and world-weary, the personification of the Old West. Now, Lane plays Margaret as older, wiser woman, living on the vanishing edge of that same frontier. She’s kind, headstrong, and determined to keep what’s left of her family intact. Costner brings the all the star power you’d expect, but this movie really belongs to Lane.
As mentioned earlier, Let Him Go propels along until the sanguine deliverance of its final act. The wheels don’t completely come off the wagon, but writer-director Thomas Bezucha gets a little too broad, a little too cartoonish for his own good. An explosion of blood and bullets is to be expected in a film like this, but the big finish goes just a smidge over the top.
But that’s not a huge gripe. Most of Let Him Go delivers exactly what you expect. It’s well-acted and beautifully filmed. Some viewers might find its beginning too muted and its ending too gory, but I found most of it to be just right.
114 min. R.