*** out of ****
(for violence and strong language)
Released: November 6, 2020
Runtime: 113 minutes
Directed by: Thomas Bezucha
Starring: Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Lesley Manville, Jeffrey Donovan, Booboo Stewart, Kayli Carter, Will Brittain
Let Him Go won’t go down as an American classic but, in the broad strokes, it sure plays like one.
Thirty years after his Oscar-sweeping Western Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner returns to the Dakotas in a neo-Western set a full century later. Writer/Director Thomas Bezucha’s tense 1960s potboiler is a seamless, intoxicating brew of three cinematic styles that peaked mid-century along with the auteurs who mastered them: John Ford westerns, Hitchcock suspense, and Douglas Sirk melodramas. It’s easy to imagine aging versions of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in the leads.
Yet rather than feeling like an homage mess, Bezucha fuses it all with a laconic Clint Eastwood-styled lament, crafting genre in character-driven slow burns of grief and guilt, then punched with gut-churning broadsides. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Bezucha and Avengers franchise editor Jeffrey Ford cut the movie to the Unforgiven score; Michael Giacchino’s sparse guitar-piano-strings compositions sure sound inspired by it.)
Costner and Diane Lane star as George and Margaret Blackledge, rural Montanans living a bucolic ranch life with their son’s young family. Following tragedy, their daughter-in-law remarries to a man of suspect origins and character. Before long and without warning, he takes her and the Blackledge’s three-year-old grandson to North Dakota where his mysterious family resides.
With valid reason to fear the worst, George (a retired sheriff) and Margaret set out on a rescue mission that turns darker and more dangerous than they bargained for, and Bezucha (who also adapted the screenplay from the Larry Watson novel) patiently crescendos the mounting dread, deftly utilizing an economy of dialogue and mastery of film language that embraces a reliance on performances.
The ingredients sound like a recipe for a quintessential Dad Movie (or Granddad Movie, judging by the socially-distanced crowd at my screening), but it’s Lane who takes the reins in Let Him Go. Costner, who leans heavily (and effectively) into a stoic, rugged archetype, is simply the grizzled support to Lane’s Mama Grizzly grit and maternal heart-and-soul. Even so, some of the film’s most touching scenes are two-handers between George and Margaret, a couple that faces two crises – one external, the other existential – from different perspectives and with different regrets, yet determined to remain united even when finding themselves at an impasse.
The family they face is formidable, acting with mafia-like impunity in their Midwestern domain, led by a sadistic matriarch. A real piece of work from her first reveal, British actress Lesley Manville lays it on thick in a character role tailor-made for scene-stealing, but never in ways that are strictly for show. She’s not mugging, she’s menacing, and Jeffrey Donovan is eerily off-kilter as her strange and cagey right-hand son. Delivering a poignant counterpoint to the high stakes is Booboo Stewart (the Twilight series) who plays a young Native American nomad on the plains who forges a connection with the Blackledges.
As a story and a piece, Let Him Go is simple and straight-forward. There’s no deeper thematic subtext, no cultural metaphors or societal parallels, yet there’s a real sophistication to the craft (one not limited to the occasional epic sweep or flourish). It’s as simple yet as smart as, say, communicating the passage of time and what’s occurred during that gap through visual cues alone rather than leaning on expository dialogue or on-screen text.
Let Him Go isn’t quite a thinking-man’s genre pulp, but it assumes the viewer is intelligent rather than accommodating the lowest common denominator. It’s a virtue that keeps the audience engaged, even riveted, while the film maintains its patience.
Allegedly, mid-range older-skewing dramas like Let Him Go will be sacrificed in the post-pandemic theatrical landscape, an experience that some experts believe will only thrive on the backs of the biggest of blockbusters. And while that’s fundamentally true, I hope it’s not entirely so.
Yes, theaters cannot exist without franchise tentpoles, but I also believe they need movies like Let Him Go to survive, perhaps not in the literal sense but certainly in any way that is meaningful. The moviegoing experience inevitably loses its luster, its majesty, and its magic if it only pushes “product” and abdicates its curation of cinema.