One can’t help but wonder if writer-director Thomas Bezucha was actively trying to evoke memories of Ma and Pa Kent in Man of Steel when he tapped Kevin Costner and Diane Lane to headline pulpy Western Let Him Go. Intentional or not, these mid-century Montana ranchers aren’t far removed from the Kansas farmers who adopted young Kal-El: George Blackledge (Costner) is the strong, silent type, while Margaret (Lane) has a warm exterior that masks — just barely — a toughness beneath the surface.
In the film’s opening moments, their recently married son perishes in a freak accident, leaving the Blackledges to care for his widow, Lorna (Kayli Carter) and infant son Jimmy. Three years zip by in a flash, and Lorna is about to wed handsome and polite Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), with George and Margaret by her side at the ceremony. But shortly after the couple says “I do,” the Blackledges are pushed out of Lorna and Jimmy’s lives — George sees this as a natural occurrence, but Margaret is troubled by the sudden distance between her and their former daughter-in-law.
Alarm bells go off when Margaret, on a trip to the grocery store, witnesses Donnie being abusive: first to three-year-old Jimmy, for the grievous offense of fumbling an ice cream cone and dropping it onto the sidewalk, then to Lorna, delivering a brutal backhand when she comes to the boy’s defense. Margaret is intuitive enough to know this isn’t the first incident and won’t be the last, but when she stops by to check on Lorna a few days later, she discovers the family has suddenly moved to the North Dakota badlands to shack up with Donnie’s kin. That Lorna should disappear without so much as a goodbye doesn’t sit right with Margaret: both she and Jimmy are clearly in danger, and who better than the Blackledges to come to their rescue?
Ever the pragmatist, George isn’t thrilled with the notion, but his devotion to Margaret outweighs any reservations he might have about getting involved with affairs that he no longer feels are their concern. Soon they’re both hitting the road in the family station wagon, but the Weboy family doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet: Uncle Bill (Jeffrey Donovan) seems to delight in making Margaret uncomfortable with suggestive questions and a near-constant leer, while Donnie’s mother Blanche (Lesley Manville) chain-smokes from her seat at the head of the table, feigning outrage when the Blackledges ask to see their grandson. “You mean you didn’t come here to eat my pork chops?” she cackles.
Let Him Go may spend its first half masquerading as a somber, slow-burn drama, but once Manville arrives the film careens into full-on thriller territory, and Bezucha doesn’t shy away from the lurid details. A violent confrontation in a motel room sets the stage for an even bloodier showdown at the Weboy family’s ramshackle farmhouse, with a stone-faced Costner and a grimly determined Lane providing an excellent counterbalance to Manville’s grade-A scenery chewing. At one point, a bathrobe-clad, near-hysterical Blanche is wildly firing a revolver while screaming “Why?” over and over again, and Manville is of the rare breed of performer who can actually pull off something so preposterous and make it work.
Adapted from Larry Watson’s 2013 novel of the same name, Let Him Go is a solid showcase for its veteran stars, allowing Costner to tread familiar territory that never feels stale — he’s infinitely watchable in period pieces like this one — and tasking Lane with constantly propelling the narrative forward as she evolves from doting grandmother to fearsome mama bear. But Manville is clearly having the most fun, and her scenes will no doubt be the ones you’ll remember when the credits roll.