Producers: Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan and Thomas Bazucha Director: Thomas Bazucha Screenplay: Thomas Bazucha Cast: Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Kayli Carter, Jeffrey Donovan, Lesley Manville, Booboo Stewart, Will Brittain, Ryan Bruce, Otto Hornung, Bram Hornung, Connor MacKay, Adam Stafford, Greg Lawson, Bradley Stryker and Finn Lee-Epp Distributor: Focus Features
An aura of gloom hovers over Thomas Bazucha’s adaptation of Larry Watson’s novel about a couple trying to rescue their grandson and his mother from the boy’s abusive stepfather and his malevolent family. Beginning as a dour domestic drama, “Let Him Go” turns first into a somber road trip and finally into a violent confrontation pitting reluctant good against manifest evil. The transition to Gothic melodrama in the last act is shocking and viscerally exciting, but not very convincing, and it ends the film on a morally dubious note.
This is a period piece, beginning on a ranch in 1960s Montana, where George and Margaret Blackledge (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) live with this strapping son James (Ryan Bruce), his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter) and their infant son Jimmy. George is a retired sheriff, and he and James break wild horses, the son following in the footsteps of his mother, who was once an expert until she gave up the practice after having to watch a favorite steed put down (one of the episode from the past that is periodically referenced in flashback).
The family dynamic seems a bit strained—Margaret and Lorna act a mite at odds—but on the surface all is well, until James, out for a ride, is thrown from his horse and killed (off screen). George goes looking for him, finds the body, and brings it mournfully back home (another scene that is the subject of an occasional flash-back).
Cut to Margaret helping George with his black suit and tie. One might presume a funeral scene will follow, but instead they’re off to a wedding—the marriage three years later of Kayli to ostensibly deferential Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), an outsider from North Dakota. It’s a small, private affair, and hardly a joyous one, since the Blackledges regret that little Jimmy (played by twins Otto and Bram Hornung) will be moving with Lorna and Donnie into town. But they try to appear supportive.
Shortly afterward Margaret sees the new family on the street, and is shocked and angered to witness Donnie slap Jimmy for dropping his ice cream and then hitting Lorna when she intervenes. Shortly afterward she drives to their apartment to confront Donnie, only to discover that they have suddenly moved out, taking off across the state line to live with his family.
That sets off the grandma grizzly in Margaret, and she starts packing for a trip to North Dakota, ostensibly to visit Jimmy but actually to try to bring him back with her. George is reluctant to go along with the plan, pointing out sheepishly at one point that they might be too old to raise a child, but she’s adamant, and he agrees to drive. Unbeknownst to him, she decides to take his old service revolver along.
The road trip portion of “Let Him Go” is far from amiable picaresque; when the Blackledges stop and ask people, including a sheriff near the border (Bradley Stryker), where they might find Donnie Weboy, they learn that the family name strikes fear in many, including Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart), a Native American boy living off the grid in an isolated shack, having fled from the repressive Indian Residential School to which he was committed. But finally they track them to Gladstone, where they locate Donnie’s brother Bill (Jeffrey Donovan), a sinister, oily sort who arranges to take them to the clan’s big, isolated farmhouse for a supposedly friendly dinner.
There they find not only Donnie, Lorna and Jimmy, who’s brusquely sent off to bed after barely a hug, but two other Weboy brothers—Elton (Connor MacKay) and Marvin (Adam Stafford). Together with Bill and Donnie they make a formidable, quietly thuggish, quartet.
As threatening as they might be, however, they’re all in thrall to the real family force—matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville), a chain-smoking harridan whose tone drenches every commonplace comment with barely concealed menace. And when she learns that George and Margaret have approached Lorna and with an offer to spirit her and Jimmy back to Montana, she and the boys pay them a visit that turns very ugly indeed—though not as ugly as what happens when they in turn invade the Weboy homestead to rescue wife and child from their virtual captors after the local law, in the person of the sheriff (Greg Lawson), proves to be cowed by the family’s infamous power. (That power is never explained, only implied, and one wonders what the residents of Gladstone, a real town in North Dakota, might feel about how they’re portrayed here.)
Bazucha, and presumably Watson before him, are aiming for a neo-Western feel here, and Costner is therefore well-cast as the aging, reserved ex-lawman called into action once more in a righteous cause—or at least a semi-righteous one, since he knows that the law is not on the grandparents’ side. (This is a modern neo-Western after all, and a note of ambiguity is a necessity.) The real revelation is Lane, who brings a beautifully modulated tone to Margaret, a woman who uses every trick in the book to extract information—and get what she wants, at whatever cost. In the supporting cast, Carter is fine, but Stewart invests greater poignancy into Peter, a young man robbed of his birthright but retaining the nobility it confers on him.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are the Weboys, who seem to have stepped out of an exploitation movie to inhabit this one (or to turn it into one). It’s certainly fun, from a purely histrionic standpoint, to watch Manville chew the scenery, as she does so floridly here, and Donovan do likewise in more subdued form. (MacKay and Stafford smolder briefly but have little opportunity to make a permanent impression.) And the final confrontation, though not staged as confidently as one might expect, is emotionally satisfying in a crude way—though it leaves a great many questions lingering as to what would happen next. (Certainly the law would get involved, and even if it didn’t, the Blackledge household would be forever traumatized.)
Apart from that, the film certainly creates an unsettling mood, first of domestic despair and then of imminent violence. Trevor Smith’s production design is appropriately bleak, and Guy Godfree’s cinematography uses the barren landscapes and small-town locations effectively; the sight of the Weboy house rising out of emptiness has some of the quality that the Bates mansion does. The editing by Jeffrey Ford and Meg Reticker suits the earlier portions of story more than the last act, which grows rather confused, while Michael Giacchino’s spare score, with guitar and piano riffs set against what seems like a single repetitious theme for strings, is uncharacteristic of his usual more extroverted work.
The title of “Let Him Go” can be taken in a variety of ways. Margaret, of course, can’t let James go, or Jimmy either, however unwise a road it forces her on. And Blanche refuses to let go of Jimmy, or Donnie (and her other boys), though it’s an act of willfulness that will cost her dearly. In this neo-Western, it’s the women who dominate things; the men are doomed to do their bidding, whatever disaster might come from it—a fact reflected in the very different but crucial performances of Lane and Manville.
That helps make “Let Him Go” a film that’s difficult to dismiss, but one marked by tonal shifts so jarring that in the end it just doesn’t hold together.