Let Him Go, in select theaters this past weekend from Focus Features, is an odd one. The producers clearly saw Kevin Costner and Diane Lane playing Ma and Pa Kent in those Superman movies and thought Costner/Lane as a married couple from the great plains was worth another 90 minutes or so. I can’t say I blame them, Costner/Lane do make effective avatars of homespun Americana, effortlessly evoking prairie populism and moral rectitude with one wizened squint towards the horizon, like Diane Arbus shooting a Viagra ad.
Which is to say: Let Him Go is strong on people and place. Costner and Lane play George and Margaret Blackledge, living on a farm in sixties Montana with their son, daughter in law, and grandson, hooking us with setting. But soon as the story kicks in, it sort of falls apart. Let Him Go, adapted by director Thomas Bezucha from a Larry Watson novel, is a bit of a tweener, unable to find a balance between realism and genre pulp, playing like a weird mishmash of Yellowstone, Taken, and Tyler Perry. It comes off as not quite exciting enough for genre movie and not quite believable enough for cinema.
The Blackledges are a big happy family until one day, George and Margaret’s son falls off his horse and breaks his neck and dies. Considering Lane and Costner last played Superman’s parents, their-son-falling-off-a-horse-and-breaking-his-neck plot point almost seems a little too real. As if the heartbreak from a dead son wasn’t tragedy enough, they soon lose their new daughter in law, Lorna (Kayli Carter) and grandson too (a big fat adorable baby) when Lorna goes off to live with her new husband, Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain). Margaret’s unease with Donnie is confirmed when she’s driving by one day and sees Donnie beat both his new wife and stepson.
Much as in a Tyler Perry movie where no character is ever forced to make a truly difficult decision and the audience need not ever ponder where they should stand, Let Him Go is almost entirely without nuance or subtext. When Lorna gets a new husband, we don’t like him already for taking away Margaret’s grandson. Before we can even process that, he’s also revealed to be a wife-beating child abuser, thereby absolving us of any empathy or uncertainty whatsoever. Well shucks, it sure is nice not to have to think!
At Margaret’s behest (she’s the stubborn one, you see) she and George eventually set out after Lorna and Donnie, who have mysteriously packed up and left town one night. George, a retired lawman, eventually tracks them to North Dakota, where they’ve gone to live with Donnie’s family, the Weboys, who are, according to the locals, not to be trifled with. But trifle they do, and George and Margaret eventually meet Blanche and Bill Weboy (Leslie Manville and Jeffrey Donovan) who immediately announce themselves as EVIL with shark-toothed smiles and lengthy Bond-villain monologues. It must be so disconcerting to meet someone who immediately starts vamping around the kitchen spilling whiskey and delivering their entire life story, can’t say it’s ever happened to me. The Blackledges, meanwhile, can’t even feign politeness. Which seems like both a strategic error on their part and not that interesting for us to watch.
White hats and black hats work better in a shoot-em-up. Let Him Go instead requires us to sit through less than believable conversation. It eventually gets to the shooting (and worse), but by then we’ve sort of lost interest. It’s a shame, because Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do look great as a cowboy couple, our idealized rural mom and dad. Turns out Let Him Go is better as a catalogue than it is a movie.