Let Him Go is the fourth film released in 2020 featuring a boy in peril. Narratively, this storyline makes for a couple of nerve wracking hours. If a child disappears in the first act, you bite your nails until the happy or unhappy conclusion. A cinema studies graduate student in pursuit of a thesis could easily corral these movies together in an attempt to define the current zeitgeist. Is the 21st century facing the extinction of innocence or does toxic masculinity develop by destabilizing boys when they’re young?
Of the four films — including Come Play, The Witches, and Madre — only Let Him Go, from start to finish, retains the coiled tension of a bad-tempered rattlesnake. While all of the actors’ performances are perfectly on point, either arousing sympathy or terror, the most surprising aspect of the movie is the direction. If you’ve heard of Thomas Bezucha, it was probably for his second film The Family Stone (2005), with Sarah Jessica Parker. Nothing in that pleasant Christmas movie suggests that the director had range enough to establish and sustain such an unsettling mood.
Working with cinematographer Guy Godfree (Maudie, 2016), Bezucha attains an expansive and menacing vision of the American West. The broad vistas in the movie are meant to be North Dakota and Montana but were actually shot in Alberta, Canada. Many of the outdoor settings in Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain (2005) were also filmed in that province. And, as in Lee’s movie, Let Him Go wraps each character in a shroud of melancholy, frustration or rage. Although it looks like a spare, contemporary take on a classic Western — complete with horseback riding and long drives on country roads — the director has instead made a doom-laden Southern Gothic.
The dark spirit that presides over the movie is Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville). Blanche is the matriarch of a bullish clan. When strangers in nearby towns say the name Weboy, they know they’re summoning up something dangerous and arcane. The Weboys reminded me of the family in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), with a memorable Jacki Weaver as the forbidding mother of criminal sons. The British director Mike Leigh has featured Manville in several of his films but she’s only recently started to command attention in the States. She’s so compelling as the demented, villainous, irrational Blanche that it’s hard to anticipate how her antagonists might be able to defeat her.
Let Him Go starts with the accidental death of Margaret (Diane Lane) and George’s (Kevin Costner) grown son. His widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) continues to live with them on their ranch with her son Jimmy — until she makes the mistake of remarrying Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), one of Blanche’s sons. After Lorna and her grandson move into town with Donnie, Margaret happens to see him hit both Lorna and Jimmy. A couple of days later when Margaret shows up at their empty apartment, a neighbor tells her that they moved out with giving a forwarding address.
The script is smartly constructed around Margaret’s responses to the events taking place. It’s her inner life that drives the plot forward. George is a supporting character in, what is essentially, a battle of wills between two mothers. Lorna is mostly a passive spectator to the action, cowed by the monsters who inhabit her new family home. Normally the hero and star of his films, Costner is graciously restrained here. He stands to the side of the frame when the camera zooms in on Diane Lane’s expressive face.
Lane makes it clear that Margaret loved her son, and that her quest is meant to be a straightforward rescue of her grandson. Her backstory, that she used to train horses and developed the uncanny skills of a horse whisperer, is intended to give viewers a sense of her strength and mettle. Margaret might not seem like a match for a wild card like Blanche and her thuggish progeny. But her ability to break in a horse with something other than force suggests that Blanche Weboy isn’t the only mother in this story wielding an iron will.
Let Him Go opens theatrically on November 6.