Review: LET HIM GO, Modern Western Delivers More Drama Than Thrills
Pop-culture wise, the Western genre’s relevance has faded over time, but for Kevin Costner, a throwback movie star and Oscar-winning director, it represents a figurative second home, a genre where he can explore, examine and dissect varying iterations of masculinity, from the playful, Hawksian charms of Silverado thirty-five years ago, to the physical, emotional, and mental toll of the Civil War in Dances With Wolves five years later, to a weary, middle-aged gunfighter exhausted with the violence of the American West in Open Range seventeen years later, through a modern rancher’s struggle against corporate greed and the excesses of unchecked capitalism in Yellowstone, and his current role as a retired ex-sheriff, George Blackledge, forced by cultural expectations and familial obligations to attempt an ill-conceived rescue mission in Let Him Go, a neo-Western set in early 1960s Montana and North Dakota.
When we first meet George and Margaret (Diane Lane, Costner’s one-time Man of Steel co-star) in a broad-strokes prologue, they’re living their definition of an idyllic existence. They apparently have everything they could ever want or need, including a comfortably sized homestead, a stay-at-homestead twenty-something son, James (Ryan Bruce), his equally young wife, Lorna (Kayli Carter), and a newly born grandson, Jimmy (Bram and Otto Hornung as a three-year-old), Margaret pampers and mothers like a second son, causing barely veiled tension to inexorably escalate between Margaret and her insecure daughter-in-law.
That idyllic family existence doesn’t last. (We’d have no narrative film otherwise, just a series of sketches or vignettes.) James dies tragically in an accident, leaving Lorna widowed and Jimmy fatherless. Eventually eager to move on, Lorna makes the first of several bad, potentially tragic decisions, marrying Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), the ill-tempered, abusive son of a powerful North Dakota matriarch, Blanche (Lesley Manville). While Margaret and George fitfully attempt to peacefully coexist with master brooder Donnie, Margaret’s suspicions about Donnie’s personality and behavior are confirmed when she spots Donnie physically abusing Jimmy and Lorna on a public sidewalk from her car. Almost immediately, Donnie leaves with Lorna and Jimmy in tow for the Weboy family compound in the Dakotas.
Margaret’s maternal instincts push her to attempt a rescue mission, convincing a recalcitrant George to make the attempt with her. Rather than rush to a confrontation or a series of confrontations, writer-director Thomas Bezucha (Monte Carlo, The Family Stone, Big Eden), departing from the light dramas and comedies that have defined his filmmaking career, smartly allows the eventual rescue mission to simmer in the background while subtlety shifting the focus to Margaret and George’s relationship, generously teasing out the nuances, the conflicts, and the compromises that have allowed them to remain a mutually supportive, loving couple for several decades. As they travel from town to town searching for clues to Donnie and Lorna’s location, they get closer to their goal, eventually crossing paths with Donnie’s uncle, Bill Weboy (Jeffrey Donovan), a malevolent, thuggish presence whose very presence and interactions with Margaret and George foreshadow the violent struggle to come.
Let Him Go completes its transition from family drama to pulp Western kicks into middle gear at a disastrous meet-and-greet between Margaret, George, and the Weboy clan/crime family led by Blanche. A dinner devolves into verbal taunts and threats backed up by Donnie, Bill, and Bill’s oversized, hulk-like, monosyllabic brothers, Marvin (Adam Stafford) and Elton (Connor Mackay). More mob boss than mother, Blanche sees Margaret and George as an existential threat both to her family and more importantly, her power. But there are two matriarchs here, not just one, and despite the odds against her, Margaret decides to pursue Jimmy’s rescue from the Weboy clan, a decision George initially resists.
Bezucha deftly mixes genres and genre elements, stumbling only in the third act by embracing rather than subverting genre conventions, specifically in sidelining Margaret at key moments when Margaret, as the plot driver and principal protagonist, should be in the foreground, not the background. Bezucha also leans unnecessarily on a heavy-handed piece of foreshadowing (a line of dialogue or explanation between Margaret and George that reappears in the final moments). Even with those caveats in mind, however, Bezucha gives patient audiences something rarely found in or out of cinemas, the rare adult, adult-oriented genre hybrid that delivers on every level, dramatically and emotionally.
Let Him Go opened in theaters on Friday, November 6.