I can’t help but respect Kevin Costner’s late career transition in comparison to some of the other actors of his generation. Whereas actors like Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson have retreated into excessive sequelizing or selling out, Costner’s late period work has been suitably appropriate for him. While he isn’t working in massive Hollywood films of his youth like The Untouchables or Dances with Wolves, his recent films have all been respectable mid-tier dramas and westerns like The Highwaymen, Draft Day and Hidden Figures that use his age and dignity effectively.
His newest film definitely feels like it belongs in this category. Let Him Go at times feels like an elevated version of a Red Box film but it’s elevated by solid performances, beautiful landscapes and a script that builds up it’s drama and tension in unexpected ways. It feels more respectable than its premise might over wise be if it were handled by someone else.
Unexpected may actually be the best operative term for the film. I can’t think of many films that start as quietly as this film does before devolving into a terrifying, nail biting depiction of hell on earth that puts it’s characters through one of the harshest wringers I’ve seen in a recent film. The film belongs to that ever nebulous genre known as the Neo-Western. Usually that just means a western set after the 19th century or one that takes it’s themes WAAAY darker than the classical western ever did (see: No Country for Old Men, Hell or High Water, Wind River, Logan, El Camino, etc.)
Let Him Go definitely exemplifies that.
As the film starts, we’re introduced to the Blackledge family comprised of a retired police officer, his wife and son living in the 1960s in North Dakota. Their son James has just married a young women who has some mild hostility with his parents but suddenly has to deal with the tragedy of his death when James is discovered having died in a horse riding accident in the woods. His widow Lorna ends up marrying a loner named Donnie Weboy out of desperation who turns out to be an abusive man who suddenly packs the family up and leaves one day.
Concerned for the safety of their grandchild, the Blackledge family hops in their station wagon and begin a trek across the state to find their daughter in law and to make sure they’re all right. The journey ends up taking them into the den of a kind of contemporary Heart of Darkness as they find themselves caught up in the complicated family dynamics of an abusive and deeply territorial redneck clan.
Like I said, the film definitely stinks of being a low concept mid-budget thriller film. The film’s story escalates so rapidly and so far by the end of the story that it almost totally usurps the laid back family drama that the film starts with. You see it most clearly in the film’s flash back scenes which contrast the decisions and lives of the characters as they were raising their son James on their ranch with the situation in the current timeline and the two feel completely different by the end.
Watching Costner have to tragically put down the family horse in front of his son does not fit in a movie with a Reservoir Dogs style torture scene. At times the film feels like it’s intercutting scenes between Old Yeller and Straw Dogs.
In a way, I can’t help but feel that it totally undermines what the film seemed to be going for initially. At first, the film is primarily a dark mystery thriller. George Blackridge feels like a very grounded character similar to Costner’s similarly retired police officer character in The Highwaymen.
It’s initially drama is rooted in the real and painful. These characters are clearly complicated and flawed people who lived normal lives up until this point. This makes the filmish ending with it’s Hitchcockian suspense so insane. The violence and loathsomeness of it’s antagonist characters is ratcheted up so high that it almost breaks the immersion.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the film had made such a solid grounding for these characters, these events would feel completely unearned. Sadly I don’t know if the film does ultimately end up earning it’s ultra-bleak “happy” ending.
The film feels like it’s robbing it’s audience of a necessary moment of catharsis after plunging it’s good guys into the heart of abuse and corruption. I really wanted both of these characters to get what they earned by the end of the film but it doesn’t quite work out as much as one would hope.
It’s a credit to Costner and Diane Lane that they sell the heck out of their characters to the point where I would actually believe their reactions to the events that happen in the film. I really got invested in their final scheme to win out the day in spite of the insane odds against them.
I don’t exactly know who I’d recommend Let Him Go to at a glance. It’s far too dark to recommend to someone who just wants to see a classic western but it’s also too slow and pondering to recommend to a contemporary audience wanting something more spectacular. I’d go as far as to say it’s quite a modest picture outside of it’s disposition for the grotesque and cruel. It’s a film that’s almost entirely saved by it’s execution and the effort of seasoned filmmakers making this story work in spite of itself.
Let Him Go ISN’T exactly going to be remembered as a fond masterpiece but it has its moments! Like I said, it feels elevated by the standards of low budget thrillers and it’s about as good of a film you can ask for right now given how nothing is opening up in cinemas at the moment.