Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. A gothic, Dakotan rescue mission. A bit of loss, and a bit of crass, mean mugging from a helmut-haired Lesley Manville. Add a dash of violence, of course — it’s a pretty good recipe. And writer/director Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go, an adaptation of novelist Larry Watson’s 2013 neo-Western, get the flavors right, at least. That marquee-name duo play Margaret and George Blackledge, a Montana couple whose adult son dies in a tragic accident. Their daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) later gets stolen away, along with the Blackledge’s three-year-old grandson, by her new husband — a bad seed named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain). Tough but loving Margaret used to break horses with her son; George was once a sheriff. You can’t just run off with the only living remnant of their lost son and expect them not to come after you.
You can expect Costner and Lane — as humbly married and rural American here as they were as Clark Kent’s parents in Man of Steel — to make the movie worth watching. And they do. It’s sturdy entertainment, all the more so for having two pros as its backbone and who are able to make the best of writing which, not coincidentally, works best when it lets the actors do the heavy lifting. An example: The moment that Margaret, who’s the one to discover that Lorna and family have moved off without a word, decides to go after them. She isn’t asking. “You know me well enough by now,” she says to her husband. “I’m not coming back here without him.” The woman is going with or without George — but he already knows that. Just as she knows that there’s no way he’ll leave her to go it alone.
Let Him Go’s title has multiple meanings, and probably they can be guessed from a one-line summary of the movie. But it’s also true that there’s a strain of loss running throughout this movie, which sees the Blackledges traveling to North Dakota and squaring off with the strong-willed, violent Weboy family. This backwoods clan overall is a little too amorphous, too anonymous, to loom over the story with as much terror as the movie seems to want. But it does have a towering matriarch in Blanche Weboy, and you can feel Manville delighting in a chance to chomp a scene. She emerges from behind a light fixture with a bulb of hair that screams I’m making an entrance and accented rasp that lends the right kind of nastiness to lines like “You mean you didn’t come here for my pork chops?” and “Or are you a Jew?” It’s no surprise that of every character here, she’s the one whose weapon of choice is an ax.
It’s not meaningful, nor quite trashy — in fact it is, more often than not, corny (“Sometimes that’s all life is, Margaret. A list of what we’ve lost”). The music, by Michael Giacchino, strains too hard to contribute a sense of down-home, local color. But the flashes of violence, which grow to become more than mere flashes, are satisfyingly grim. And grim-corny neo-Western vibes are this movie’s surprisingly effective one-two punch. Just note the scene of Margaret watching from afar as Donnie beats his family on the street, the way Bezucha ping-pongs between Lane’s horror-movie reactions in her car and the everyday violence of a wayward husband.
The thing is, you really don’t need more than Lane and Costner playing married, decked out in flannel and sorrow, effortless in their delivery of the movie’s plaintive country verse, to make for a riveting movie. For all that follows, there are few scenes here are more satisfying than Costner complimenting his wife’s pot roast (“You’re just used to mine,” she says, with beautiful familiarity), stealing frosting in the kitchen, quickly shutting down her reprimands about whiskey, or getting shut down for trying to deter her on this mission.
This stuff surpasses the more explicit explorations of the movie’s themes — the conversations about age, the troubled flashbacks — that weigh the movie down for already being evoked elsewhere. The thriller attached to it all is appreciable for adding a bit of speed and suspense to this yarn. You could do worse than sticking an iconic Ma and Pa pair in a dusky detective story that plays out in beauteous open countryside, letting them face brush after brush with unspoken danger and watching them scratch at the underbelly of the West. It’s too bad, then, that the movie overreaches. A side-story involving an Indigenous man, Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart), is as poignant and, in certain ways, historically urgent as it is extraneous to the main thrust of the story. It’s not hard to be sympathetic to Let Him Go’s desire to broaden, drift, be all-encompassing; that’s what yarns are good for. It’s what makes the movie an okay hang as is. And it’s also what may make you crave a better movie.