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Non-Review Review: Let Him Go

Any plot summary of Let Him Go inevitably does the film a disservice.

After all, the basic narrative of Let Him Go invites comparisons to the “da’ction” genre that was popularised by Taken. (In fact, Honest Thief is in cinemas at the moment, proving that even the pandemic cannot kill the Liam Neeson midlife action film.) At its core, Let Him Go is a story about an older couple who embark on a journey to rescue their lost daughter-in-law and their grandson from an increasingly ominous set of circumstances. It becomes obvious as the film progresses that George and Margaret are mounting a rescue mission in hostile territory.

Peak Da’ction? (Or “Dad-ction”, for our American readers?)

In reality, Thomas Bezucha’s film is a much more meditative and contemplative affair than that description suggests. Let Him Go offers a quiet and introspective character study of an elderly couple venturing through the wilds of the American heartland, navigating their shared grief offer the loss of their son in a freak accident as much as their anxieties around the possible fate of their grandson. Much of Let Him Go consists of George and Margaret trying to navigate a strange world, but also one another.

The results are compelling. Let Him Go features flashes of violence and brutality, but it works best as something of a mood piece. It’s a melancholy reflection on a warped and hostile landscape, playing as an update on the classic western template for the modern era.

Bucking the trend.

Bezucha understands what he’s working with in Let Him Go. Leads Kevin Costner and Diane Lane essentially reprise their roles from Man of Steel, where the pair were cast as Superman’s adoptive human parents. Once again, Costner and Lane are cast as the embodiment of a certain romantic American rural archetype, one that appears to have been conjured directly from the collective imagination. Their life is simple and honest, occasionally feeling like something of a fantasy.

On the ranch that they share, George and Margaret have built something resembling a paradise for one another. Indeed, the opening scenes that depict the sudden and tragic loss of their son suggests something of et in arcadia ego, a reminder that there is no place entirely untouched by death and tragedy. The film is bookended with another reminder that George and Margaret know enough about death from their time spent on the ranch, but it is presented as an intrusion and aberration.

Into the wild grey yonder.

The casting does a tremendous amount of the work here. Even outside of his collaboration with Lane on Man of Steel, Costner’s later years have seen him become a walking embodiment of rugged Americana. This is perhaps most obvious looking at recent films like The Highwaymen, but also in his move to television in Yellowstone. Indeed, it’s not too hard to reimagine Let Him Go as written by Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan as a companion piece to his films like Hell or Highwater and Wind River.

As played by Costner and Lane, George and Margaret occasionally feel like characters who stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting into a world much more hostile and deceptive than their life to that point might suggest. Let Him Go takes a great deal of care to suggest this tension with the character of Margaret, who packs both a revolver and a delicious home-baked cake for her journey into darkness.

A time to heal.

As much as George and Margaret live an idyllic existence, Let Him Go suggests that real horror is waiting for George and Margaret out in the world. George perhaps knows this better than Margaret. Much is made of the fact that he spent “over thirty years” as a sheriff. He knows what the world is like, even as he brings order to it. It is not too hard to imagine Costner’s stoic lawman sharing a coffee with Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from No Country for Old Men, contemplating when things broke down or whether the world ever made sense.

There’s a palpable and mounting sense of unease that permeates through Let Him Go, and Bezucha does an excellent job at slowly turning up the temperature across the movie’s runtime. This unease starts with Margaret’s glimpse of a small scene of domestic abuse in public, a drama glimpsed through a car windshield that begins with the ice cream dropped from a young child’s cone. This small act of brutality is enough to spur Margaret into action, to recover her grandson from his new stepfather and – in doing so – bring home the last piece of her son.

Monstrous mother.

Let Him Go walks a fine line, between a pulpy exploitation thriller and a more intimate character study. The film weaves the familiar tropes of rural horror into the story, as it is revealed that their daughter-in-law has married into the ominous Weboy clan. The Weboys are dominated by a brutal matriarch Blanche, who is very possessive of her boys. Blanche is a monstrous mother, her own perverse desire to assert dominance over her offspring offering a nightmarish mirror to Margaret’s increasingly frantic devotion to bring her own grandson home.

However, Let Him Go knows exactly how far to push these elements, and when to pull back in. There are several sequences in Let Him Go which are effective demonstrations of unsettling escalation, including a fantastic late motel room scene, but a lot of the movie is given over to conversations between George and Margaret as they attempt to figure out where they stand; both in this brutal world and in relation to one another. There’s an impressive steeliness to both Costner and Lane, which softens at key moments to suggest both vulnerability and desperation.

Let it sink in.

In many ways, Let Him Go feels like a stronger version of the movie that The Devil All the Time wanted to be. Both are pulpy rural gothics about generational guilt that meditate on the challenges of navigating such a hostile world, where family can be both empowering and suffocating. However, The Devil All the Time attempts to tell its story on an epic canvas, offering a sprawling adventure that stretches too thin and too far to carry the weight pressed upon it. In contrast, Let Him Go opts for a more intimate and contemplative approach, one that serves the story well.

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