A heartfelt, handsomely made but unconvincing tonal mash-up, Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go begins as a family drama embodying the no-nonsense smarts of its early-’60s heartland setting before veering into wild Gothic menace and ill-advised vigilantism. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, perfectly cast as the parents of a son whose death leaves a vulnerable wife and infant behind, make the picture’s first half completely involving, encouraging our confidence that the quandary being sketched out will have a sensible if difficult resolution. That’s not the case, and an increasingly rare opportunity to see A-listers tell a grown-up, unsensationalized story fades as quickly as the red stripe on the horizon at dawn.
The actors, whose earlier pairing as Ma and Pa Kent was one of the rare high points of Zack Snyder’s DC films, play a variation on that archetype here: George and Margaret Blackledge live on a Montana ranch, where he’s a retired lawman and she breaks horses — or did, until the couple’s grown son was thrown by one and died instantly.
A quiet, adult drama interrupted by genre-pic contrivances.
About three years later, the Blackledges watch as their son’s widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) marries Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) in a Town Hall ceremony whose chilliness seems apt. They love their grandson Jimmy, but seem never to have truly bonded with Lorna, and have no cause for faith in the man who’ll now be caring for her. We’re not very surprised (though Michael Giacchino’s score is) when Margaret accidentally witnesses Donnie hitting both Lorna and the child on the street one day. Before she can decide how to address the situation, though, the newlyweds have moved out of town with no forwarding address.
These are people of few words. Bezucha (who also wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Larry Watson) gracefully communicates what George immediately understands: His wife is going to find their grandson, with his help or without it. Given the provisions she’s packed into their station wagon, she’s ready for the job to take a while.
Costner and Lane have no trouble communicating how well these two know each other after their decades together, but the mores of their time give their mission some unspoken friction. George, inclined to defer to the legal bonds of wedlock, believes he’s hunting Donnie down only so Margaret can say a proper goodbye to the grandson who now belongs to someone else. Margaret, whose stubborn sense of duty George knows well, has no intention of relinquishing her responsibility for the boy.
But where the couple’s clue-following road trip into North Dakota promises to explore the multiple meanings the film’s title has for its grieving protagonists — which “him” will they be saying goodbye to here, or are the losses of son and grandson entwined? — the journey instead left-turns into the badlands of genre fare.
We learn that the Weboy clan is a tight-knit crew with a bad reputation. Even several towns away, people whisper about them as if they quietly ruled both Dakotas; when we’re finally in their kitchen, Bezucha presents matriarch Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville) as if she were the middle-American equivalent of a cartel boss, just back from the hairdresser and dripping with faux-hospitable menace.
Rescuing Jimmy (and possibly Lorna) from a possessive, abusive husband would have been plenty of drama for this hitherto quiet, sensitive picture. Instead we get a family full of leering thugs, whose depiction sometimes suggests they might have a cousin out in the barn who dresses in other people’s flesh. The action doesn’t get quite that extreme, but it’s bad enough.
George and Margaret first react more or less believably, looking for a peaceful solution. But when that fails, so does the script’s commitment to anything like narrative logic. Throw in the help of a young Native American man who lives in the wilderness after escaping from a government re-education school (a tangent that surely wasn’t this abrupt in the pages of the novel), and you get dangerously close to turning the sturdy, sane Blackledges into unlikely action heroes interchangeable with those from a hundred less serious flicks.
Production company: Mazur Kaplan
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Kayli Carter, Otto Hornung, Bram Hornung, Lesley Manville, William Brittain, Jeffrey Donovan, Booboo Stewart
Director-Screenwriter: Thomas Bezucha
Producers: Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Thomas Bezucha
Executive producers: Jeffrey Lampert, Josh McLaughlin, Kimi Armstrong Stein, Kevin Costner
Director of photography: Guy Godfree
Production designer: Trevor Smith
Costume designer: Carol Case
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Meg Reticker
Composer: Michael Giacchino
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
R, 113 minutes