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Schultz reviews: 'Let Him Go'

Schultz reviews: 'Let Him Go'

Carl Schultz



“Let Him Go”   Distributed by Focus Features, 114 Minutes, Rated R, Released November 06, 2020:

The ghosts of hundreds of classic western adventures seem to haunt “Let Him Go,” the new movie from Focus Features that blends the traditionally American film genre with elements of suspense and horror.  In a way, the movie seems to represent a sort of changing of the guard, a condensed evolution of recent movie history.  That the primary characters in the picture are played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner helps to explain why the film contains more impact than it might have otherwise.

In 1961, middle-aged Montana rancher and former lawman George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) lose their adult son (Ryan Bruce) in a tragic riding accident, leaving the son’s widow and infant son in their care.  Three years later, the young widow (Kayli Carter) remarries, accepting a proposal from a loutish and abusive bully (Will Brittain) who casually mistreats both her and her child.

Eventually, under the cover of night, the man spirits away the young widow and her son from their new apartment in the nearby town to his family’s home in the badlands of North Dakota.  Already incensed by the man’s abusive nature toward their grandson, Margaret compels her reluctant husband to travel with her to North Dakota to recover the boy and rescue him from both the abusive stepfather and his cultish family.

A modern revisionist American western, almost a spiritual updating of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” “Let Him Go” at times resembles a hybrid of 1952’s “High Noon” and elements of the 1970s exploitation pictures of filmmaker Wes Craven, particularly “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes.”  And like the Craven films, “Let Him Go” turns out to be a remarkably disquieting movie--nearly every scene in the picture contains an ominous dynamic of impending mayhem.

Part of what makes “Let Him Go” so effective is that the picture is framed in our expectations of a traditional American western.  Lane and Costner are traditional genre archetypes:  Once upon a time their characters could’ve been played by Vera Miles and James Stewart (although Stewart is primarily remembered today for his affable personality in innocuous family comedies, during his late-career westerns the actor, as with Costner here, could be as flinty and crusty as Clint Eastwood in his “Dollars” trilogy).

You won’t find more traditionally American performers than Diane Lane and Kevin Costner.  Both appear as if they sprung whole and breathing from the wheat fields of Kansas, in the American Heartland.  Individually they’ve blazed trails through the North American frontiers in near-legendary films as diverse as “Lonesome Dove” in 1989 and “Dances With Wolves” in 1990.  Together, the two appeared as Superman’s adoptive parents Martha and Jonathan Kent in 2013’s “Man of Steel.”  And brother, you can’t get any more American than that.

As played by Costner and Lane (Diane Lane actually is listed above Costner in both the movie’s credits and advertising), George and Margaret Blackledge are the quintessential Americans of the plains--they speak only when necessary, choose their words carefully, talk plainly, and tell the truth always.  When they encounter senseless and deliberate cruelty, cruelty for its own sake, they’re confused and confounded.  And while through plain inundation we’ve been inured to infinite movie cruelty in the years since 1964, when the picture takes place, because the Blackledges are bewildered by it, so are we. 

Although the Blackledges are carefully cordial and even guardedly friendly when finally locating the stepfamily of their grandson (headed by the boy’s roguishly vicious step-grandmother, played by British actress Lesley Manville in a characterization that gives the viewer an idea of how Norman Bates became Norman Bates), the possibility of sudden and spontaneous violence looms over practically every word they exchange.  And when the violence finally and ultimately explodes, “Let Him Go” becomes as relentlessly terrifying as any horror picture in the last twenty years.

In the picture’s most harrowing scene, as a means of discouraging their continuing efforts to recover the child, the kidnappers of the Blackledges’ grandson (their family name is Weboy, pronounced WE-boy, as in Proud Boy) casually and deliberately maim Costner’s George as Lane’s Margaret looks on in hysterics.  And during that horrifying segment of the picture, the viewer instinctively knows the point of no return has been reached.  In a way, both the evil Weboys and the virtuous Blackledges are now damned--there will be more blood to be spilled, and people will die.

Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, adapted from Larry Watson’s 2013 novel of the same title, the picture is not so much well-written as well-planned:  Like a Greek tragedy, there’s nary a loose thread or plot inconsistency in the picture’s 114-minutes running time.  The early 1960s production design by Trevor Smith is as accurate as a Kodachrome color slide of the era, right down to the weathered blue 1957 Buick pickup truck Costner drives.  And Michael Giacchino’s soulful and elegiac soundtrack, rich in strings and bass drums pitched to suggest distant thunder, is evocative of both the disappearing frontier and an approaching storm.

Despite a noble attempt during the movie’s second act to draw a metaphor between the Blackledges’ loss of their grandson and the federal appropriation of Native American lands, traditions, and heritage, “Let Him Go” is as effective as it is because it’s as elemental as it is:  The film’s impact is directly relative to the characters’ struggle between the extremes of good and evil, love and hate, life and death.  The film might not be artistic, or particularly enjoyable, or even healthy to watch.  But in a visceral way, the picture is as effective as any film since “The Wild Bunch” in 1969.

Still, it’s the authoritative acting by Diane Lane and especially Kevin Costner that genuinely puts the picture across, and gives it depth and resonance.  In less-capable or perhaps less-seasoned hands, the picture might’ve been pitched more toward a standard revenge drama, little different in tone or impact from, say, 1967’s “The Born Losers” or one of the “Death Wish” or “Rambo” movies.  But with the experienced participation of Lane and Costner as well as some richly talented artisans, “Let Him Go” becomes a minor American classic.

Released to 2454 movie theaters throughout North America and Canada, “Let Him Go” even during the Covid-ravaged box office managed to earn some $1.5 million in ticket sales on its opening day alone, including $150,000 from Thursday night previews.  The picture has also earned an approval rating of 75% from the Rotten Tomatoes website against a weighted average of 64% from Metacritic, indicating generally favorable reviews.  The PostTrak audience polling service reports 82% of participating audience members awarded the picture a positive score.

“Let Him Go” is rated R for violence and language.

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