Adapted from an apparently bestselling novel by Larry Watson, Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go is an interesting combination of multiple concepts stacked high for the most engaged viewer, but never entirely clear of their conjoined purpose. Its core approach as a family healing/revenge thriller is admirable alone, but the steps it takes portraying its very genre-specific yarn lack placidness and subtlety. It certainly starts out that way: polite, jovial, and warmly optimistic. It’s about halfway when this otherwise awards-season gem veers into near-Tarantino level blood and violence. A complete 180-degree spin of inconsistency that ventures close to balancing itself out by the end, thanks in small part to a confident cast with delicate chemistry. It gets so close but can go only so far before the motivation falls away.
Bezucha passionately follows the beats of Watson’s glossy novel to the letter, rooted in that early-60s Americana when farming was still cool, old school soda parlors were more common, and small-town law enforcement had a greater say over the communities they served. For retired sheriff turned Montana rancher George Blackledge (Kevin Costner), 30 years wearing the badge proved he could turn any situation peaceful. Unrest in his family is something he could neither plan nor protect. Still reeling with wife Margaret (Diane Lane) after the loss of his eldest son in a horse-riding accident, he’s shaken, and rather grizzled out. There is a positive to be found in his life as daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) quickly remarries to hotshot Donnie (Will Brittain).
Even that can’t last too long once the initial wedded bliss subsides, as Donnie is shown to be a bit of a hothead with a bad temper, taking that out on Lorna and their young kid, George and Margaret’s grandson. Not wanting to repeat past mistakes, the pair are just a bit more determined to maintain a bit of peace in their extended family. Thus ignites a greater challenge with the clan Lorna is marrying into, the dominant Weboys from two towns over. They are a very nasty group of property owners, led by a devious mama hen (Lesley Manville) fixated on protecting what is hers, and not hesitating to get fists up to do so.
Such an intimidating back and forth aids to keep Bezucha as grounded as he can. The director best known for more strictly upbeat dramedies like Monte Carlo or The Family Stone makes the most of an opportunity to tap deeper into that sense of family, the lengths we can go to keep it safe. The antagonists appear regrettably undercooked or underdeveloped in this dual tonality, Brittain lending so little thematically, as the next rung in an overwhelming cycle of abuse. Weighing down that uncertain desire to go dark and violent, the family still can pose a likely threat with Manville in a demanding yet flawless turn as their leader. So much conniving energy, with every limb flailing and often-raspy voice nailing that down, not unlike her stunner in Phantom Thread.
It’s just that the side of good has a more rigid, worthwhile role to play here. Generic and cookie-cutter as Bezucha rolls in the first half (likely the novel itself is to blame, it being set in such a squeaky-clean period), it is really hard to ignore the natural chemistry Lane and Costner invoke between each other. In a shameless reunion of their parental instincts not seen since 2013’s Man of Steel, the pair are once again a perfect fit building on each other’s strengths with a refreshing flavor to married life at a certain age and with their circumstances in the rearview. A few unavoidable tics emerge between the pair, Lane having to emphasize to just about everyone they contact the strained relationship they have with the Weboy clan becomes as tiresome as Costner reminding us of his experience as a county sheriff.
Such punctuations and others like it are enough to wander us away from the beaten path just as the starch-shirted visage is replaced with a more relaxed, though still visceral demeanor. When that does happen, the stark change in tone occurs too quickly too late. There’s never enough time for the slow-moving drama to mean something other than a jumping-off point for that edgier, grim suspense thriller arc when it replaces the former, and certainly vice versa. Both sides can’t come together, and yet that won’t stop Lane from answering the call. She has no trouble projecting her motherly frustration when the moment demands, versus Costner’s reluctantly stoic anger. Keep an eye open for Booboo Stewart (The Grizzlies), playing one of the few allies the two have, a Native American loner gripping with his own familial loss, and building a kindred bond with Margaret.
With an informal representation of 60s Western America as the adjunct stage (the badlands of Southern Alberta are utilized to stunning effect), Bezucha lays a balanced pattern within an imbalanced good vs evil story. Neither side ever see eye to eye, and making both fit together fails to bear significant fruit. Two different films forced to play nice, the results are, at best quietly awkward. That wild west aesthetic is still very firm in hand through his direction, as well as sweepingly IMAX-esque cinematography by Guy Godfree (Plus One), and a string-influenced Michael Giacchino score deliberately rooted in his style but with a faintly experimental hint of Carter Burwell added in to throw off his scent.
Let Him Go may not be so easy to let go of in the memory. Regardless of its numerous missteps hindering it from stepping into any sort of year-end greatness, there’s just enough in its tank to make the drive down its awe-inspiring landscape worth a theater visit, or a likely at-home rental before December comes and goes. The visuals alone are worth an admission price, so too are the heroic antics of both Costner and Lane. No disputing they certainly save this film from languishing in its own corner of terror, and Manville completely stealing the show, and their thunder. Audiences need to be prepared for the pivot Bezucha is going for. It’s certainly compelling enough of a dramatic thrill, but not all that convincing. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Let Him Go opens in area theaters this weekend; rated R for violence; 113 minutes.