Many classic Westerns were really just thrillers in disguise. You can still find some of those, but recently filmmakers have used the genre as a reason to slow things down. The open spaces of the old West lend themselves to a pace that allows for concentration on character and dialogue, as well as creating suspense that ratchets up patiently and inexorably. Thus, we have Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cut-Off, John Maclean’s Slow West, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, the Zellner brothers’ Damsel. Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go should have been in that class, given the talent that went into it. Unfortunately, the one wide theatrical release this week underwhelms.
I must admit I haven’t read the Larry Watson novel that the movie is based on, but I do know that while the book was set in the early 1950s, the film moves up the setting by at least a decade. The story begins on the Montana ranch belonging to retired sheriff George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and his wife Margaret (Diane Lane). Their adult son is killed after being thrown from a horse while working on their property, leaving behind his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter) and a baby boy. The trouble only starts three years later, when Lorna remarries one Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) and moves out of the Blackledge house. Margaret sees Donnie beating Lorna and the boy on the street, and soon afterwards all three of them abscond to the Weboy property in North Dakota. She resolves to head across the border to rescue her grandson, while George tags along, concerned that his headstrong wife doesn’t know what she’s getting into.
This is who they’re dealing with: When Margaret confronts Donnie’s mother Blanche (Lesley Manville) with his abuse, Blanche’s immediate response is ordering her son to punch Margaret in the face, and he does. The main reason to see this movie is Manville — the 54-year-old British actress bagged an overdue Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread and should have won the trophy for Another Year, but she has seldom graced American films. Here, she creates a compelling monster, blowsy, bleached blonde, bent on absolute control of her three muscular young sons and Lorna’s boy, hard-drinking but still ruthless enough to chop off someone’s hand so they can’t come after her with a gun. The film also has some worthy performances by Brittain as the weak-willed Donnie and Jeffrey Donovan as Blanche’s brother, who hides his menace behind a friendly veneer, but Manville owns this show.
There isn’t enough to the movie around her, though. The long-settled marriage of George and Margaret is indistinctly written in the early part of the film, as the Blackledges travel the highways through the Big Sky country. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha (whose credits include the romantic comedies The Family Stone and Monte Carlo) doesn’t have the action chops to pull off the big climactic showdown at the Weboy family manse. Without much flair for visuals, the director is miscast in Let Him Go, which is what regrettably takes the film down.
Let Him Go
Starring Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, based on Larry Watson’s novel. Rated R.