Let Him Go: Unforgiven, by David Bax
Generally, the “Western” category of movies refers to those that take place in hard-bitten, arid landscapes where the Industrial Age hasn’t quite arrived yet. Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go doesn’t meet the temporal requirement, taking place sometime around 1960. But it’s got the location right–gorgeously so–and, more importantly, it captures the pragmatic moral hierarchy of the American psyche that says family comes first and transgressions against it live on in the blood.
Margaret (Diane Lane) and her retired sheriff husband, George (Kevin Costner), live with their son, James (Ryan Bruce), his wife, Lorna (Kayli Carter), and their infant grandson, Jimmy. One day, James dies in an accident and suddenly we are a few years in the future. Lorna has remarried and her abusive new husband, Donnie (Will Brittain), has moved her and Jimmy across state lines to live with his own family. Margaret and George head out to try to convince Lorna to leave Donnie and come back home with the boy. But Donnie’s clan won’t let go so easily.
Bezucha has a confident, unerring handle on his material (adapted from a novel by Larry Watson) but if one weapon in his arsenal had to be singled out in Let Him Go, it would be a flawless eye for casting. Lane and Costner have the kind of presence and chemistry that makes it endlessly interesting just to watch them sit and look at each other. And, after Private Life and Charlie Says, Carter is establishing herself as one of the most engaging actors her age currently working. Meanwhile, Bezucha stacks the rest of the cast with character actors with an emphasis on character, whether in larger parts like a dangerous, off-kilter Jeffrey Donovan or in single scene wonders like Greg Lawson as a sheriff with, let’s say, less of a commitment to the law than George.
All of it takes place against a backdrop of period detail in the costumes, production design and art direction that is complete and meticulous without ever succumbing to the false, airless quality of so many overwrought attempts to recreate the past in movies. Let Him Go isn’t just trying to impress you with era-specific fabrics and details. Like Rick Alverson’s The Mountain from last year, it positions the 1950s and the increasingly less remote wilds of the northern states as the time and setting for the doomed last stand of American individualism.
That’s not what Margaret and George are mourning, though; at least, not consciously. Their quest to rescue Jimmy–if that’s indeed what they’re doing–is inextricable from their grief at the loss of James, whose absence would seem still too painful for them to directly address. But Let Him Go‘s bereaved tone extends to encapsulate all the lost things, generations of people, ways of life; in the case of the young Native American man the couple befriend (Booboo Stewart), even culture and language. There’s a melancholy to the film that skillfully avoids fatalism (even as the title seems to suggest Margaret and George’s mission is doomed) and lands instead on a kind of universal commiseration.
Grief is what happens when happy memories become tainted by the loss of those who feature in them. Lane and Costner give us a heartbreaking distillation of this truth in a scene–one of the best in any movie this year–in which George asks Margaret about a horse she once had named Strawberry, an example of the way the couple talks about death without mentioning their son. Lane goes from happy to sorrowful while Costner goes from wistful to regretful that he even brought it up. It’s only one of a handful of especially talky sections in the movie but it inspires wordless flashbacks of Strawberry that are more of a piece with the rest of the film than the dialogue scenes. Like many Westerns, this is a terse movie. In this case, though, it’s not due to some gruff masculinity but because the whole thing operates more like a memory than a story. Let Him Go takes place in the past in more ways than one.