Let Him Go, review: a standard potboiler raised to must-see status

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in Let Him Go - Kimberley French / Focus Features
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in Let Him Go - Kimberley French / Focus Features


15 cert, 114 min. Dir: Thomas Bezucha. Cast: Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Lesley Manville, Jeffrey Donovan, Booboo Stewart, Kayli Carter, Will Brittain

Let Him Go is a western-tinged, slow-burning rescue thriller which could be set almost any time before mobile phones and the internet. As it happens, it takes place in mid-1960s Montana, which gives the film a pictorial resemblance to Brokeback Mountain. Plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and horseback riding set the scene, but when the film gets down to business, it packs the bereaved couple played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane into a 1958 Chevy station wagon, leaving their ranch behind to enact a gritty variation on the plot in John Ford’s The Searchers.

Their grown son has died in a riding accident, leaving his young boy, Jimmy, in the care of the remaining Blackledge family: Margaret (Lane), retired sheriff George (Costner) and their skittish daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter), whose remarriage three years later threatens the whole arrangement. Watching the older couple dress up in sombre suits for the occasion, it takes a beat before we realise this isn’t a funeral. In terms of their relationship with their grandson, though, it more or less counts as one.

Lorna hasn’t just married a new man – sullenly handsome, physically abusive Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) – but into a shady dynasty, the Weboy family, who rule over their own stretch of the North Dakota prairies like one of those miscreant clans from Ozark. While no Weboys darken the wedding pictures, Jimmy’s future is immediately rewritten as one of scowling misery and petty crime – unless Margaret, who has clearly displaced her grief onto caring for Jimmy like the boy she’s lost, has anything to say about it. The Weboys whisk him away, and she wants him back.

Diane Lane, you might recall, tended the farm as Martha Kent opposite Costner’s gruff dad in Man of Steel, and she’s played more than her share lately of supportive wives taking a dreary back seat (Trumbo, too). Here she’s the mobilising force of the story, and not in a hint-dropping sort of way, but in a preparing-to-drive-off-solo sort of way.

To George’s considerable surprise, Margaret packs not only an iced Bundt cake but a revolver under the car’s front seat, suggesting that she’s got the measure of these sadistic Weboys more intuitively than he has. And her methods of playing nice to get what she wants are a lot more evolved than those of her husband, a man of few words and blunt formalities, who essentially rides along as back-up.

It’s some of Lane’s most substantial work since her Oscar nod opposite Richard Gere for Unfaithful (2002), and it’s a credit to this film, a straightforward potboiler directed with solid emotive force by Thomas Bezucha, that it recognises the value of flipping gender expectations in a neo-western setting. Racial ones, too. John Wayne’s Searchers blood feud against the entire Comanche people is certainly not the name of the game. The only Native American character, in fact, is a fine-featured young drifter called Peter (Booboo Stewart) whom George and Margaret befriend while camping on the trail – a shy, uncertain ally who’s homeless and out of his element.

There’s a nest of vipers awaiting the Blackledges, but it greets them with a calculating veneer of hospitality before rearing up to strike. Donnie himself, angry runt of the Weboys, is the least of anyone’s worries. Before they find him, George and Margaret have to go through his brother Bill, played by the perennially overacting Jeffrey Donovan with a rictus that seems to be shooting for “curdled bonhomie” and never lets up.

If that bit of casting feels maladroit, Lesley Manville’s wobbles on a knife-edge between enjoyably ripe and too showy by half. She’s Blanche, a smirking matriarch with four brutish boys under her thumb, who lures the Blackledges round for a blackened pork-chop dinner, sans visible veg, and cultivates the kind of atmosphere where “mi casa su casa” could only sound viciously sarcastic. Her blonde curls and throaty laugh are expressly designed to recall Barbara Stanwyck’s anti-heroine in Samuel Fuller’s cult classic Forty Guns (1957) – a ruthless rancher with a demonic streak.

I couldn’t quite decide how seriously to take Manville’s performance, but it’s certainly not dull. And the final showdown in the Weboys’ grim manor is managed with Clint-Eastwood-esque cathartic skill – violent, but not excessively so, and coming in with soft footsteps rather than all guns blazing. It’s odd that this mission falls exclusively to George, momentarily forgetting that this has been Lane’s film all along. Raising it to a must-see, she gets the scope to build a character who’s at once fretful and dead set, clinging on to what she loves, and fully prepared to fight.

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