Let Him Go recalls that period in the 2000s when Diane Lane briefly encroached on Ashley Judd’s turf. Offering perfectly decent turns in thrillers like Fierce People, Untraceable and Killshot, Lane looked ready to follow Judd’s run of flicks like Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls, and High Crimes. However, Lane isn’t quite as natural a fit to play the hardened vigilante, but her versatility has an edge. Let Him Go smartly tailors the character to Lane’s age and warmth. There’s actually something extra badass about a vigilante grandma who packs a Bundt cake with her pistol. Call it service with a smile.
“Be the good girl you always have to be…”
Lane’s sweet little grandma, Margaret Blackledge, is distraught when her son James dies in a horsing accident. James leaves behind his widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) and their son Jimmy. Margaret is actually in the midst of cradling her grandson when she learns of James’s death. Her son’s namesake is the last connection to the boy she raised. Imagine Margaret’s disappointment, then, when Lorna remarries a shady character named Donnie (Will Brittain). When she witnesses Donnie abuse both Lorna and Jimmy in the street, and then learns that they skipped town a day later, she toughens up like Ashley Judd en route to a Mardi Gras parade.
Margaret’s husband, George (Kevin Costner), however, is a more traditional gunslinger. The salty former sheriff abides by the laws of the land and another man’s home. He advises Margaret simply to cherish the time she had with Jimmy and move on. They have no claim to the boy unless Lorna wants them to in his life. Movies are movies, however, and Margaret gives him a taste of life without her. It’s canned soup if he stays behind or Bundt cake if she rides with her. The gunslinger chooses wisely.
“Let him go, let him go / Can’t hold it back anymore…”
Let Him Go charts an unconventional western as the Blackledges traverse America in search of their grandson. The film has a unique wholesomeness that fuels its journey towards inevitable violence. Margaret and George are the kind of rugged westerners who fight like they have nothing to lose. Beset with a new loss after years of grief, they’re fighting for the family they once had. Shades of the difficult years that passed between James’s death and Jimmy’s disappearance arise. George, for example, quivers for a drink and needs nip for the ride. Margaret, the strong silent type, simply turns a blind eye. They’ve had this argument before.
Despite the flickers of tension, the Blackledges’ vigilante road trip offers moments of warmth. Lane and Costner, after all, previously played Superman’s parents. Strength unites them. Family is their kryptonite. They share coffee cake during the ride and stop at greasy spoons. They epitomize the all-American wholesomeness of the late 1950s.
While admiring the sunset on a ridge and considering the daunting task ahead, the beautiful cinematography by Canuck Guy Godfree firmly places Let Him Go in the western tradition. Yet the film reimagines the genre in unsubtle ways, beginning with the young Indigenous man, Peter (Booboo Stewart), whom they befriend. Margaret’s kindly spirit soothes him. In a land with a growing capacity for violence, her nurturing warmth proves the deadlier weapon and they gain an ally. The journey features much evidence that Margaret is correct in insisting Jimmy’d be better off in their care than Donnie’s.
“A kingdom of isolation / And it looks like I’m the queen”
Donnie’s reputation precedes him, however, and tracking him down comes easily. George wrangles some cop connections who recognize Donnie’s last name: Weboy. The Weboys are tough stuff and notorious in their neck of the woods. They’re the kind of folks who find you first.
Cue Donnie’s cussball brother Bill (Jeffery Donovan) who tracks them down and invites them to dinner. Bill’s proposal feels like an eerie summons to a family dinner à la Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, this hillbilly bloodbath is perhaps equally sick and twisted.
If the Blackledges resemble the last stand for the all-American family, the Weboys are the scourge on wholesome Bundt-cake eating civility. The ringleader of the crew is Blanche Weboy, mamma to four boys and the most ornery cuss in the land. Played by Lesley Manville in a performance of scene-chewing, venom-spittin’ fury, Blanche is the antithesis to Margaret’s mighty heart. She makes a mean pork chop—and I mean mean—offering the Blackledges supper as if it’s their last. Decked out in a bouncy blonde wig seemingly discarded from RuPaul’s Drag Race and channelling Jacki Weaver’s icy turn as Smurf in Animal Kingdom, Manville commands the film from the moment she enters. It’s no surprise given her intimidating power in Phantom Thread. Yet where her work opposite Daniel Day-Lewis was menacing in its restraint, the grandeur of Manville’s work with Lane is the film’s ticking time bomb.
“Here I stand and here I’ll stay / Let the storm rage on…”
An inevitable showdown ensues between Margaret and Blanche at the dinner table. Let Him Go has the potential to do for pork chops what August: Osage County did for catfish. Where August made audiences roar with Julia Roberts’ “Eat the fish, bitch” to Meryl Streep, Let Him Go makes contact. The dinner, played entirely around the family table in the Weboys darkened kitchen, is a tense fright.
The nightmarish family gathering eventually gifts the world with the sight of Lesley Manville bitch-slapping Diane Lane. This hugely GIF-able moment of high camp spirit is the shot the film needs. On one hand, writer/director Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone) eases up on what seems like a drearily self-serious and intermittently generic fable. On the other, the gleeful camp value of Manville’s performance fully commits to the showdown at hand. Let Him Go lays claim to being the most matronly western ever made. However, that’s actually its charm. Costner’s stoic gunslinger takes a secondary role. More significantly, he takes the harder knocks, leaving it to Lane to emerge the film’s hero.
Yet by placing the ultimate showdown between two mothers, the film finally takes audiences by surprise. It asks how they want to raise the next the generation; what values they plan to instil in the youth. The best westerns meditate on the USA’s past and future. On one hand, it’s the last stand for civility. On the other, it sees the house of self-centred simpletons gleefully afire. Rugged westerners usually ride off into the sunset, but Margaret notably emerges from a frosty night to see the sunrise. The cold never bothered her anyway.
Let Him Go opens November 6.