I’ve always found contemporary Westerns to be far more compelling than the standard 19th-early 20th-century epoch that is immediately familiar when the genre is mentioned. Anarchistic individuals with an Old Testament view of justice are far easier to see as products of their environment when it comes to the Old West, which isn’t nearly as intriguing as people swimming against the current of modernised governance and moral structures. The characters who make their living outside the bounds of the law in No Country For Old Men possess a rigid, atavistic approach to individualism and masculinity, eschewing the notions of legal arbitration and passive acceptance/forgiveness.
This is despite the fact their story takes place in the Texas of 1980, many decades after fabric-altering societal reforms had swept across the United States and outmoded the concept of being a law unto yourself. Even though the ‘no rules whatsoever’ image of the American West is highly exaggerated, it thematically speaks to the broader American ideal of individual freedom and destiny-mastering, and as a personal philosophy feels more high-stakes when taking place in our age of ubiquitous surveillance and regulation (not to mention territorially pacifistic intellectualism) than it does in the times of a town with one lawman who felt ambivalent about chasing the local cattle-rustlers or Billy The Kid.
Let Him Go, an uncharacteristic new venture from director Thomas Bezucha, offers a look at these themes and motifs with more pointedly anachronistic trappings than that of its 1960s-era Pacific Northwest/Midwestern locale. Based on a novel by Larry Watson, it probes the paradigms of gruff, erstwhile lawmen and family values in a milieu of apathy and menace, underpinned by tender, folksy relationships and a generous amount of pathos.
Montana, 1963. Tough and honourable retired sheriff George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and wife Margaret (Diane Lane) were beset by tragedy a couple of years prior when their son James died as a result of being thrown from a horse. Having just given birth at the time, James’ wife Lorna (Kayli Carter) couldn’t stand the thought of burdening George and Margaret with constant round-the-clock care of her and James’ son Jimmy while she endeavoured to find work. Despite the older couple’s evident old-school doting on the boy, Lorna has elected to marry again to make things more convenient for the Blackledge family.
Lorna’s new husband, Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), is a young man hailing from an ill-famed clan residing in North Dakota. With the newly blended young family moving into an apartment in town, George and Margaret attempt to put reservations and stresses out of mind and be content in the fact that they’ll be able to visit Jimmy often and enjoy an unbusied home. A prospectively easy new chapter, if only Margaret didn’t secretly witness Donnie’s vicious and unprovoked assault of Lorna and Jimmy whilst shopping one afternoon. Fearing for her grandson’s safety, Margaret is thrown into a tailspin when it transpires that Donnie has abandoned the apartment and forcibly taken Lorna and Jimmy to his family’s North Dakota compound. Margaret convinces a trepidatious George that the only solution is to track down the Weboy family and take Jimmy back to live with them for good.
Let Him Go strongly benefits from Guy Godfree’s cinematography, his keen eye capturing the mighty expanse of Canada’s Alberta province (I’m admittedly unaware of the resemblance that it actually bears to the plains of Montana and North Dakota, but it possesses vivid, rustic gorgeousness nonetheless). This imagery of a Great American Nowhere is given a warm and plaintive touch courtesy of Michael Giacchino’s classical guitar score, a composition that reminded me not a little of John Williams’ Cavatina (The Deer Hunter). All of this provides a fitting aesthetic backdrop for the touching and believable central relationship between Costner and Lane. Both actors lend a naturalistically intimate air to the couple’s dynamic, imbuing the film with an immersive sense that these two know one another inside out after a very long marriage, their sturdiness most effectively communicated in good-natured ribbing, fond anecdotes and the quieter moments. Verbal sentimentalism is minimal, and that can only be a plus.
All of these favourable elements notwithstanding, the film suffers from a haphazard rush to get to its destination, a counterintuitive facet given its near-2 hour running time and the fact that a great deal of frame is spent with George & Margaret on the road. Their son’s death opens the film with an apt starkness, only to feel strangely clouded over as we witness Lorna’s marriage into the Weboy household in the very next scene. You’d be hard-pressed to find any motion picture that doesn’t involve the viewer filling in blanks to some extent, but forgoing any kind of aftermath and segueing so sharply into the film’s catalytic events impedes the vicarious experience. Scenes involving a young Native American rancher (Booboo Stewart) who the Blackledges meet on their rescue mission are delivered in lacklustre fashion and don’t feel at home within the piece.
Similarly jarring is the rapid tonal acceleration that occurs once the film’s villain quotient comes into focus. Lesley Manville delivers an expertly unpleasant turn as sinister matriarch Blanche Weboy, an unpredictable platinum-blonde chain-smoker with heavy Ma Barker/Ma Jarrett vibes. Her capriciousness of mood and penchant for understated emotional bullying ensures a deeply uncomfortable introductory scene between herself and the Blackledges, but her performance alone cannot elevate the Weboys beyond the remit of cookie-cutter thriller villainy. This family don’t appear to be a crime syndicate, merely a quasi-feral backwoods tribe who enjoy being violent control freaks for the sake of it. No incisive exposition is given as to why they are so relentlessly possessive of Lorna & Jimmy, and the scenes of extreme violence that follows their inclusion take the film on a clunky detour into garden-variety action thriller fare. It’s a disappointing lapse into easy arc-wrapping given the thoughtful characterisation of the two leads and the subtle, maturely-composed obstacles they contend with up to that point.
The Costner-Lane team and the denouement ultimately suffuse the tale with a modicum of satisfaction in regards to its Western-predicated tackling of love, courage and defeating evil. Were it not for a questionable change-up into garish B-Movie sensibilities and perfunctory bit characters, Let It Go could have been a contender for one of the year’s strongest dramas. Alas, it merely makes for a decent time-consumer if you’ve got a rainy afternoon with nothing to do. Give it the once-over for the principals, I’d say they deserve that much, but it’ll be unlikely to linger.