Life has taken a lot from Margaret and George Blackledge, our protagonists. By all accounts a kind and unassuming couple, played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, the Blackledges know a quiet existence in early-1960s rural Montana. Even before the title card of Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go appears, however, tragedy and misfortune leave them with little left to lose, and little better to do than defend what remains. That would be their only remaining descendant, their young grandson Jimmy. When the nefarious Weboy family assumes custody of the kid by marriage, the Blackledges (rightly) fear he may be gravely mishandled in their company. And so, this curiously genre-bending, neo-western / gray-haired-drama / noir thriller / gothic yarn spins an intriguing story out of its strong elements.
Lane and Costner anchor the film with charisma and palpable confidence; it can be easy at times to tune out of the dialogue and just marvel at two screen legends giving such a singular project their all. Costner as George is stoic and withdrawn, but regularly flashes disarming emotion across his craggy face. Lane as Margaret is driven and confident; she crafts a commendably nuanced role, and a unique one, considering Hollywood seems all too often to grimace at the prospect of letting women over 50 embody complicated, self-possessed characters. This refreshing direction also produces a bombastic result in the part of matriarch Blanche Weboy, played with hauntingly sinister dimension by Lesley Manville. Blanche may be the most stunning surprise from Let Him Go; not only for Manville’s striking performance, but as much for the character’s extreme, searing villainy. She feels like a figure ripped out of a pulp thriller of old, with a cackling, deliberate sadism that recalls some of the most hallowed of retro baddies. Her presence is a fascinating foil for George and Margaret’s decency and care for the vulnerable, as the more we and they get to hear Blanche’s sizzling mania and watch her command the Weboy goons, the more their quest to save Jimmy from her gains momentum. What may initially look like a relatively pat, even conservative aging drama is much more incisive, much more violent, and much more thrilling that one might assume.
Let Him Go is full of surprises, and mostly quite good ones. It can be easy to fidget in one’s seat in its first few minutes, as the sullen cinematography and muted landscapes feel like either a morose depiction of the rural 20th-century American lifestyle, or an uncomfortably nostalgic veneration of it. Neither assumption proves correct, as Bezucha’s script — based on the 2013 novel by Larry Watson — quickly yanks the viewer into its unsentimentally honest depiction of life’s woes and horrors. Once the Weboys enter the picture, and George and Margaret venture to the Dakotas to face them, Let Him Go shifts into a tension-filled potboiler, in which the wide expanses of the northwest plains create a claustrophobic arena where the Blackledges and the cultish Weboys seem destined to duke it out.
One of the most edifying surprises, however, comes through the character of Peter Dragswolf, played by Booboo Stewart. Peter, a resourceful, kind young Native American man, crosses paths with the Blackledges as they venture towards their confrontation with the Weboys, and while, again, one might momentarily assume the film is leaning into cliché in presenting a ‘wise mysterious Indian’ trope, Peter’s addition to the narrative brings with it a chance to earnestly and unapologetically condemn practices of forced re-education and family separation inflicted by white Americans upon people like Peter and his family. As he befriends the couple, he tells them of these traumatic histories, and why he has chosen to live out on the plains, with neither connection nor obligation to the world they know. Margaret, easily the more open and liberal of the marriage, is understanding and kind in return, and even the implicitly more conservative George seems convinced and moved by Peter’s story. If the intention was to remind modern audiences that for all of white Americans’ talk of valiance, values, family, and freedom, this country has consistently failed to acceptably address the unconscionable subjugation of those who occupied the country originally, then this is a very good move. After all, we are a few hundred years behind schedule for mainstream media to be delivering these kinds of messages.
On that same note, however, one moment late in the film counters some of that wisdom. At a pivotal turning point, Peter returns and essentially risks his life to help Margaret and George with their cause; this moment recalls some noxious Hollywood trends that tend to expect people of color to willingly sacrifice themselves for the benefit of white protagonists’ journeys. It’s a distracting, uncreative move, which lets down the film’s generally unpredictable approach in favor of more easily reaching its fiery climax.
Still, that climax is worth reaching. Though Bezucha definitely could have heightened the stakes, and intensified the bloodbath that eventually engulfs this family feud, the action here is mostly engrossing, economic, thrilling, and harsh. Let Him Go achieves a striking trick of the mind, beginning with a heartfelt, well-measured story of rural humanity, and patiently ramping up its simmering tension to finish as a searing confrontation of warped, cruel, and misanthropic American mindsets. Like Antonio Campos’ star-studded The Devil All the Time did earlier this year, Let Him Go spins gothic parable into timely, remorseless interrogation of just how “great” America has ever been, especially among demographics that many have short-sightedly begun to address as “the real America” in the last few years. Both films depict such gruesome depravity among rural, “white working-class” populations that the conclusion rather conspicuously reprimands any who still possess a rose-tinted nostalgia for some supposed heyday that has been over-romanticized to the point of pure fictionalization.
A good way to measure that choice is to ask oneself: would John Wayne have hated this? If yes, it likely has a nuanced take on American patriotism, and avoids referencing any “city on a hill” or manifest destiny mentality. Thankfully, Wayne — whose own embodiment of white American exceptionalism in John Ford’s The Searchers is inverted here, considering George and Margaret intend to rescue this young’un not from “savage” Indians, but from savage whites — would indeed have despised Let Him Go. That can only be a good thing.
Certain elements limit the film’s potential, unfortunately, as many of the filmmakers’ good ideas end up feeling inconsistent. Peter’s character, for one, is a very welcome presence but awkwardly utilized. Margaret herself — though Lane’s performance and the script’s centering of her make for a memorable character — could still have used more scenes and dialogue to better establish her motivations. Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the odd sidelining of its production design as the film progresses. Beautiful period details in the costumes, sets, cars, and characterizations (as well as some beautiful horses) populate the film’s first third, but gradually become less and less particular, such that the final few sections could have been set in pretty much any year and any place. There are benefits, of course, in exercising restraint, and keeping a film from screaming it’s the nineteen-sixties! at the viewer every other second, but the flatness in later chapters feels like a lost thread rather than an intentional minimalism.
All in all, however, this is an enjoyably strange, confident film, whose serene, patient approach masks a crafty appetite for mayhem, conflict, and macabre retribution. It may become a sleeper hit for its compact storyline and solid performances from a notable cast (including a gleefully menacing Jeffrey Donovan channeling his Fargo cred to great effect as Bill Weboy). Or, it may contentedly remain a hidden gem — humble, modest, and unassuming as its protagonists, and that’s just fine.