If Zack Snyder’s superhero movies got one thing right — and that’s a big “if” — it’s that Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are the Platonic ideal of white, decent, midwestern parents. Bright actors on their own, these two stars transform into some kind of denim supernova whenever they’re hired to share the same galaxy; the patriotic energy of their combined screen presence is powerful enough to fuel a Ford commercial and make you want to call your parents “ma” and “pa” for a few weird days. But while Snyder recognized that Costner and Lane spark an old-fashioned vision of American values more potent than even Superman could express alone, the franchise-oriented “Man of Steel” couldn’t afford to consider that such a vision can only exist in hindsight.
Thomas Bezucha’s “Let Him Go” doesn’t have that problem. Adapted from the Larry Watson novel of the same name, this terse and simple Western thriller casts Costner and Lane as a retired couple in early ’60s Montana whose marriage is tested at a time when America’s aspirational self-image is about to be undone by the tribalism of its design. Here is a tanned hide of a movie about the violence that results from conflicting ideas of what this country should be, and while the writer/director of “The Family Stone” lacks the chops to tell this story with the suspense it demands (or the hard-nosed focus required to mine something new from the myth it deconstructs), he fully understands the symbolic power of seeing these actors lose something they can never get back.
Unfolding like a cross between “The Searchers” and a bloody episode of “This Is Us,” “Let Him Go” introduces three generations of the Blackledge family living together in relative harmony before it tears them apart just a few minutes later. Things aren’t perfect between Margaret (Lane) and her daughter-in-law Lorna (“Private Life” breakout Kayli Carter) — an early moment of maternal disagreement anticipates the mess of “mother knows best” tension to come — and we wonder how emotionally accessible a stone-faced sheriff like George (Costner, in subdued “Yellowstone” mode) could’ve been to his son Ryan, but the whole clan is united by their love for baby Jimmy.
Alas, that same love sparks a gruesome cycle of retribution after Ryan dies in a freak horse-riding accident, and a desperate Lorna agrees to remarry a not-so-nice fella with family ties of his own a few years later (Will Brittain as the abusive Donnie Weboy). The day after their grim city hall nuptials, Donnie steals Lorna and Jimmy away to North Dakota with the intention of raising the child as a member of the Weboy’s mafia-like brood, and in doing so robs the grief-stricken Blackledges of the last direct connection they have to their late son.
Both grandparents are made from rough bark, but it’s Margaret who pockets her husband’s service pistol, bakes a nice lemon cake, and gins up some big John Wayne energy as she prepares to drive north in search of her “stolen” kin. In a twist on the expected gender roles, George is the one who’s reticent about taking back something that doesn’t legally belong to them, and nervous about the consequences of trying. He cautions his wife that life is just “a list of what we’ve lost,” but he’s still man enough not to let her hit the road alone. And so the stage is set for a slow-moving sexagenarian rampage of revenge, as George and Margaret wind their way toward Weboy country and square off against Donnie’s goon squad of siblings and their platinum blonde spider queen of a mother (Lesley Manville, delivering the kind of all-you-can-eat performance that feels like a personal attack on Melissa Leo’s entire career).
If that all sounds like the makings of a taut, action-packed thriller about two families trying to cut each other’s bloodlines, well, it is and it isn’t. Laconic in a way that often tips into lethargy whenever its thinly sketched characters look inward, “Let Him Go” is looking to thread the needle between pulp and myth in much the same way as “No Country for Old Men,” but those seams tend to fray without the succinct tension of Cormac McCarthy’s writing to sow them together. Lurching forward with the urgency you might expect from (and/or envy about) two retired Midwestern ranchers who know their grandson isn’t in any imminent physical danger, Bezucha’s adaptation never figures out the cleanest route to North Dakota, so it winds up taking all of them.
The first half of the Blackledge’s ill-advised quest alternates between turning the screws and raising the stakes, each of these scenes unfolding with the flat uncertainty of a film that almost can’t believe such regular folks have found themselves following John Wayne’s footsteps. An ominous encounter with one of Donnie’s scarred cousins feels like it’s only pretending to be in a more heightened movie. The brief detours we make to learn about the Blackledges’ pasts tend to hit the brakes whenever they threaten to divorce these characters from their symbolic value. Repeated flashbacks to George euthanizing a horse kill momentum, while a clumsy reference to the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his father is only used to lay the groundwork for a story that mines the majority of its conflict from incompatible definitions of what it means to be “civilized.”
It’s a theme that Manville cottons to in a delightful way, her performance risking a cartoonish tinge to help bridge the gap between the movie this is, and the movie it wants to be. “Let Him Go” aspires to feel like a born-again Western — and thoroughly understands what that entails on an intellectual level — but Bezucha isn’t always able to wrap his mind around how they work. He’s right to be focused on the fact that Margaret and George are in over their heads, but even after shit hits the fan and the story embraces certain genre conventions, it’s still told with a slack touch far too casual for its underlying fatalism. You can see that in the haphazard framing of the various family confrontations, and hear it in the way that Michael Giacchino’s score cuts lame violin spirals into scenes that have no clear shape.
If the details don’t click, “Let Him Go” fares better whenever it takes the long view and looks over the horizons. The Blackledges are never fleshed out beyond what they represent, but there’s another character worth caring about — a young Native American runaway (Booboo Stewart) called Peter by the people who stole him away to the Indian Residential School from which he’s just escaped. Stripped of his name, forced to forget his language, and alone in a country taken from his people, “Peter” is a poignant emblem of what people like George and Margaret are only learning in their twilight years: America has always been a country that takes without asking, and we’d sooner burn it to the ground than stop living all over each other. It’s only with Peter’s help that “Let Him Go” is able to find something worth saving in the ashes.
Focus Features will release “Let Him Go” in theaters on Friday, November 6.
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