Let Him Go
Starring Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. In theatres Friday (November 7).
Let Him Go is set in the first half of the '60s, when—according to the movie, anyway—people were simpler and narratives were uncomplicated. Bad people existed to do bad things, good people were there to suffer them or stop them, and everyone else just sort of blandly got out of the way. Let Him Go is an elemental movie, then, about two grandparents from North Dakota who travel to Montana to reclaim their dead son’s child from the bad people who have laid claim to him.
The grandparents are unquestionably noble, and we know this because they are played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, who previously defined salt-of-the-earth heartland goodness as Clark Kent’s parents in the Zack Snyder Superman movies.
Lane and Costner are both solid actors, with screen personae so entrenched that just casting them communicates their characters’ histories: Lane’s Margaret is a former horsewoman, connected to animals and people, the actor’s natural warmth carrying an undercurrent of stern anger, while Costner’s George is a taciturn, capable rancher—a former lawman, even—who understands violence but tries to talk his way through situations whenever possible.
Margaret and George had a son, and he died, and his widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) remarried a couple of years later to a twitchy fella named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) who promised to treat Lorna and her young son Jimmy well but came up short. Margaret sees Donnie slap the boy, then Lorna, but before she can confront Donnie about it he ups and moves them all away to his family’s homestead in Montana without so much as a goodbye call. And so, concerned for Jimmy’s safety, Margaret gets George in their station wagon and they head out to find the Weboy clan.
Adapting Larry Wilson’s spare, atmospheric novel, writer-director Thomas Bezucha seems to be channelling Ron Howard’s prestige-Americana mode, spending a lot of money on production design and post-production to show us how understated and restrained everything is supposed to be.
It worked for Howard in The Missing, but that was largely due to Tommy Lee Jones’s remarkable performance as a man who walked away from his family decades earlier and has only just now realized how much of a mistake that was. Let Him Go does not have Tommy Lee Jones in it, though Costner’s performance does occasionally remind us of the actor’s steely presence and economical way of delivering dialogue.
Let Him Go does have Lesley Manville as Blanche Weboy, matriarch of the Weboy clan, who is apparently a crimelord of some standing; the Weboys are feared throughout the land, we are told, though we never find out what it is they do or how it is they came to command such standing. This is the sort of thing you can get away with in a novel, where perspectives can be limited and dark doings can hang in the air like an electric charge; rendered by actors in physical space, the Weboys just seem like stock hick villains, the kind of lugs who threatened the unlucky protagonists of movies like I Spit On Your Grave or The Last House On The Left back in the day.
Anyway, Margaret and George are invited to have dinner with Blanche, who tells them her entire origin story as a way of asserting her power and standing, and Margaret and George are polite enough to sit at her table and listen to her babble on. She lets them see Lorna and Jimmy for about a minute and a half; this is rightly perceived as insulting, and George and Margaret leave.
We are now about an hour into this movie and there is nearly another hour to go, because Thomas Bezucha does not know how to pace a narrative. (His breakout feature, the generational dramedy The Family Stone, had similar problems, but people forgive it because they grew up watching it on cable and that nice Diane Keaton is in it.) And so Margaret and George try to convince Lorna to let them take Jimmy home with them, and that doesn’t go so well, and then there’s another thing that happens, and finally the situation escalates into spectacular, preposterous bloodshed, because Let Him Go fancies itself to have deep thoughts about family and honour and decency and stuff.
The book had a better handle on it, being more subtle and evocative, spending time on the road with Margaret and George and exploring their emotional states, their shared history, the gutting loss driving them to preserve what remains of their son. Bezucha chooses to tell the story in a straight line, and it reduces his movie to a checklist: this thing happens, then this thing, then this thing, and that.
The only time Let Him Go really comes to life is when it puts the main story aside so Margaret and George can spend time with Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart), a young Indigenous horseman they meet on their journey—and who, because this is really just a pulp Western, becomes an invaluable ally in the back half of the story.
Bezucha treats Peter as a source of exposition and white-knighting—a chance for us to understand that George and Margaret are more evolved than the other white folk Peter has encountered in his life—but Lane and Costner don’t condescend to the material the way their director does, and they bring out a wounded, cautious quality in Stewart he doesn’t often get to show.
I don’t think I’ll spend much more time thinking about Let Him Go, which is ultimately just a junky revenge movie that wastes a lot of very talented actors’ time and will probably also waste yours if you let it, but I expect that from time to time I’ll think about Stewart and Lane and Costner, just sitting out in the badlands together talking about horses, and wish someone had made a whole movie about that.