It’s Finally Time to LET HIM GO

A slow-burn western featuring a top-notch Diane Lane.

There are some actors so iconic who are such natural born movie stars that the magic of their presence on the screen is just invaluable. That’s certainly been the case for Kevin Costner, who had no trouble competing with the oftentimes epic nature of some of his projects in the past. The Untouchables, Dances with Wolves and The Bodyguard didn’t run the risk of overshadowing the leading man while maintaining their power as compelling movies. Even lesser fare like Robin Hood and The Postman still saw Costner hold his own against the larger-than-life projects, although that meant he shouldered more of the blame for their shortcomings than he otherwise would have had he not been such a high-profile name. By the late 2000s, titles such as the thriller Mr. Brooks and the comedy Swing Vote featured a still-vital Costner, but by now he’d become an actor whose films seemed to have little use for his specific persona or marquee value, despite the marvelous work he delivered in them. Let Him Go partly fits into this vein. It’s a film which sees the star still hungry enough to explore his craft even if he’s one of the least interesting aspects of the film itself, leading to the question: Does a Kevin Costner movie really even need Kevin Costner?

In Let Him Go, Costner and Diane Lane play George and Martha Blackledge, a longtime married couple whose only son has died from a riding accident. Some time later, their son’s widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) gets remarried to Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) and takes George and Margaret’s grandson with her as she starts a new life. Sensing that something is wrong, George and Margaret decide to take it upon themselves to take a road trip and visit their grandson, leading them straight into his new stepfather’s dangerous family clan headed by the ferocious matriarch Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville). Soon George and Margaret realize they have no choice but to rescue their grandson at whatever cost.

Modern westerns seem to have this trend of trying to retain enough elements about the genre so that they can still claim to be of the genre, while also trying to show a different side to it. Let Him Go does succeed in this regard, but partly to its own detriment. Director Thomas Bezucha’s adaptation of the Larry Wilson novel is so plodding and deliberately paced, that it becomes almost alienating. There’s such an even-keeled approach to the material, as if Bezucha is instructing his audience to locate the poetry within a scene before he allows them to move onto the next. To be fair, this approach does work at certain parts of the film, but the dramatic thriller is a complicated genre to nail down and Let Him Go can’t seem to balance the latter elements too well. Scenes with most of the Weoboy clan contain a faint amount of tension, especially the initial dinner scene, but fails to capitalize on any of it. The same problem plagues most of climactic encounters between the two families which play out as sequences which never get the chance to flourish with the kind of heart pounding action that accompanies any good western. Watching Let Him Go, I couldn’t help but remember 2005’s Capote and the overbearing sense that that film went out of its way to reach an extra level of bleakness, despite its real-life story being bleak enough on its own. This film suffers from the same problem; it’s so intent on telling a quiet story of an emotionally lost family that it not only virtually ignores its admittedly attractive villains, but forgoes much of the spark and energy which made the story worth telling in the first place.

There’s still much to admire about Let Him Go, despite its execution. For a start, the film is so incredibly shot thanks to cinematographer Guy Godfree. The soft richness of the west comes alive in a genuinely moving way and makes the landscape look so ethereal and serene through and through. It’s the perfect lens for the film’s telling themes to shine. Let Him Go is winning in its illustrations of women in the 1950s-set western. The film boasts not one, but two alpha female characters who are both cut from the same cloth, yet as opposite as can be. Margaret carries with her a quiet dignity which is her calling card and remains more reserved than the outspoken and somewhat abrasive Blanche. The two are opposite ends of that era’s spectrum and yet can’t help but be bonded over the traits which most women of that world possess. Both are mothers who aren’t defined by that fact and both proudly carry their toughness and femininity side by side. Their interactions also lead Margaret (and George) to face one of the movie’s biggest themes- atonement. So many reasons inspire the couple to embark on their journey: the need to be close to their only grandson as well as the need to finally make amends with Lorna and (finally) come to terms with their only child’s death. These are all factors present in Let Him Go, which are not merely occasionally acknowledged, but rather thoughtfully and lovingly explored.

Costner is solid here, even if the film struggles to make him as relevant in its last third as it does Lane. Still, it’s so rare that the actor gets to play a character so rich in personal history, which he recognizes and does right by through a quietly moving turn. Lane is the real star here, showing a fierceness and demeanor in keeping with women of her generation, while exuding a powerful nature and unshakable strength underneath. The actress may not be on the top of any awards list this season, but the amount of truth and humanity she gives to Margaret makes Let Him Go one of her best performances. Jeffrey Donovan as another Weboy, Booboo Stewart as a Native American living in the mountains and Carter all do right by their parts and the script in general, but it’s Manville who makes the whole affair stop dead its tracks with a performance that finds the right mix of outrageousness and wickedness.

Bezucha is a skilled director. His sophomore effort, 2005’s The Family Stone mixed holiday hilarity with the heartfelt dynamics of a family at a crossroads. Let Him Go is perhaps his most noteworthy effort since that time and ends up being such a mixed bag that the final result is both failure and triumph. As for the Costner question I posed in the beginning, no, a Kevin Costner movie doesn’t always need Kevin Costner. But most films he’s said yes to in the last decade have been lucky to have him. Titles such as The Company Men, Hidden Figures and Molly’s Game are all outstanding films which had no reliance on the two-time Oscar winner’s name, but were graced and made better by his participation in each of them. These collaborations surely fuel the actor’s current desire to lend himself to projects which intrigue him as an artist instead of appealing to his movie star persona. Let Him Go fits in this mold perfectly, and Costner does right by it in the way he gives himself wholeheartedly to the flawed, but ultimately compelling film and world within it.

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