A film review by Craig J. Koban November 30, 2020

RANK# 17

LET HIM GO jjj
 

2018, R, 114 mins

Kevin Costner as George Blackledge  /  Diane Lane as Margaret Blackledge  /  Jeffrey Donovan as Bill Weboy  /  Will Brittain as Donnie Weboy  /  Lesley Manville as Blanche Weboy  /  Kayli Carter as Lorna Blackledge  /  Booboo Stewart as Peter Dragswolf

Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, based on the novel by Larry Watson

LET HIM GO is a thoroughly involving and sometimes positively chilling period thriller that's a welcome throwback to the types of slow-burn, character driven genre efforts of yesteryear that we frankly don't get in abundance anymore.  

It's the kind of the thriller that places great respect in honoring the patience of filmgoers in letting its narrative play out slowly and methodically, so much so that when violence does permeate the picture it does so with a shockingly effective immediacy.  That, and LET HIM GO is a chief reminder of how veteran talent in front of the camera can truly take charge and lead the proceedings, even when the scripting built around them tends to be wobbly in parts.  Minor faults aside, this is as consummately made of a thriller as any I've seen this year, made all the more invigorating by the enthrallingly in-tune lead performances by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both of whom enrich the film with an emotionally wounded humanity that just about anyone can relate to. 

Opening in 1963 Montana, LET HIM GO introduces us to retired Sheriff George Blackledge (Costner) and his wife Margaret (Lane), who live a peaceful life of solitude on the prairies with their son James (Ryan Bruce), his wife, Lorna (Kayli Carter), and their infant son Jimmy.  James has been training horses (which he took up after his mother), and during one routine ride his spooked horse returns back to the house without him, which sparks George to investigate the whereabouts of his son.  He discovers, to his horror, James' dead body near a meadow, the victim of what appears to be a freak accident.  Flashforwarding a few years, the story then picks up to reveal Lorna's new marriage to a toxically abusive lout named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), who physically beats both his new wife and stepson, which is publicly witnessed one morning by Margaret herself.  Being a strong willed and independent minded lady, Margaret decides to take it upon herself to go to their daughter-in-law's home to confront her about her relationship with Donnie, but when she arrives at their apartment she is informed that they have abruptly left without any notice to anyone and without any forward address notification of any kind. 

Predictably, this sends Margaret spiraling down into a pit of despair and worry, which prompts her to pack her things (and her hubby's dusty revolver for protection) and drive off in the family station wagon in search for answers.  George eventually tags along, even though he doesn't completely endorse her proposal of taking back their grandson home to raise him as their own (firstly - and in his mind - they're way too old to be parents again and secondly, what she plans is essentially kidnapping).  Through some keen armchair detective work, George and Margaret learn that their grandson and his parents are shacked up with Donnie's hillbilly family out in the middle of nowhere, where they meet up with all members of this clan, including the tough talking matriarch, Blanche (Leslie Manville), who initially seems inviting of her new guests, but during a particularly tense supper it soon becomes clear that this power control freak of a grandmother will never let her grandson go back with his other set of grandparents quietly and without a fight. 

 

 

LET HIM GO is a cinematic curveball in terms of the type of film it sets up, only then to segue into something darker and more sinister.  What starts as a meditation on family grief and loss becomes a tense on-the-road mystery and eventually a nerve wracking revenge thriller pitting two sets of vastly different households with divergent values against one another that both feel righteous in their sense of ownership over a young boy caught in the middle.  This is not an action heavy thriller (as some of the film's advance marketing has emphasized), but rather a rich character exploration piece that attempts to tap into all of the feelings of frustration, loss, and concern that George and Margaret have to navigate through not only when it comes to processing their son's death, but also the sudden disappearance of their grandson, which is a different type of loss that they perhaps struggle through more.  Director Thomas Buzucha makes the calculated move early on to examine the unique family dynamics that punctuate the story and uses considerable filmmaking economy in the opening sections of establishing George and Margaret's close ties to their son and grandson, which later helps elevate the sense of urgency of their mission of discovery later.  I've always appreciated meditative thrillers that aren't rushing out the gate and place more prominence on establishing the troubled personas at the heart of it all, and LET HIM GO is no exception. 

Plus, this is a rare thriller about old people dealing with numerous old wounds, and Buzacha's screenplay welcomes many exploratory dialogue exchanges between George and Margaret about not only the moral uncertainty of their mission to right wrongs, but also whether this is something people of their age should actually be doing in the first place.  George himself, as a former lawman, is not portrayed here as some elderly superhuman action hero, but is rather showed as flawed and vulnerable man that may not be capable of saving the day when the situation presents itself.  LET HIM GO wisely understands that its characters are at the winter of their respective lives and never falsely upsells them as anything but.  Parts of the film reminded me of UNFORGIVEN in the sense that both deal with aging characters being thrust into violent worlds that they've been trying to avoid since slipping into quiet retirement.  Obviously, there are decided echoes of the western genre as a chief influence here in the storyline, not to mention that Costner's very presence alone provides an added meta quality.  Then there's the way that Bezucha and cinematographer Guy Godfree frame the vast menacing beauty and expansiveness of the Montana and North Dakota plains, which further adds fuel to the fire of this neo-Western vibe. 

LET HIM GO really starts to hit its tension built stride when the two respective families begin to clash, which is chillingly evoked with their first aforementioned supper together; it's a brilliantly orchestrated sequence of quietly rendered terror in the way that we gradually learn that Blanche and her boys are seriously not dealing with a full deck (Manville especially is in full scenery chewing mode here as this mother from the deepest pits of hell role, and she has a field day crafting such an odious and intimidating villain in perfectly delineated broad strokes).  There's also a scene that proceeds that featuring Donnie's uncle Bill (Jeffrey Donovan), who has Margaret in his car leading George in tow towards his family home.  This all builds a sense of chronic unease without resorting to histrionic thriller troupes.  Of course, there are individual moments of ruthlessly savage violence in the film that highlights the brutal depths that the Weboy family is willing to go to in order to ensure that the sought after child goes nowhere from their sights.  When the bloodshed happens, though, it has a sucker punch impact that's unmistakably potent.  LET HIM GO is a violent picture that doesn't wallow in violence to sensationalistic effect like so many other shameless thrillers that are all about mayhem and chaos; you're really meant to feel the pain and misery of these characters being sent into oblivion. 

Bezucha builds everything to a fire and brimstone climax that's increasingly suspenseful and pays off rather handsomely, even while some of the side beats leading up to this point seem sort of artificially tossed in.  There's a semi-recurring character of a Native American youth living on his own that - like George and Margaret - has suffered his own form of family tragedy that decides to helps the beleaguered couple.  This all could have worked wonderfully if the script developed this union more naturally and didn't make this supporting player feel like a plot device introduced when deemed necessary.  These are minor quibbles, because LET HIM GO contains such solid direction and an embarrassment of performance riches, and seeing Costner and Lane together on screen again (remember them playing Superman's Earth parents in MAN OF STEEL?) as they near the twilight of their careers is an unending treat that keeps on given.  Costner has always been, in my mind, a far better actor than he ever gets credit for, and he's so refined and modulated here as a figure of calm spoken authority that's paired so fluidly with Lane's fearlessly determined and gutsy Midwestern gal that will stop at nothing to get her grandson back.  There's never a moment in LET HIM GO when you doubt that George and Margaret haven't had a history together, and it takes special actors to sell their characters' decade's old bond that will see them through any hardship.  Costner and Lane are the glue that dramatically holds this film confidently together, and it's their authenticity and unforced chemistry that they bring to the table that makes LET HIM GO work so well on so many unexpectedly powerful levels. 

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