“Let Him Go” is beautiful and unassuming, nonjudgmental, even. It’s a gorgeously thought-out film about love and loss in an ordinary and wholesome Montana family — until it isn’t. The kindest way to think of it is that different people wrote the first and second half, even though writer and director Thomas Bezucha penned it all.
At its onset, “Let Him Go” is idyllic. It’s nothing like the cheap action flick it later becomes, filled with nine lives and implausibilities. Rather, it’s a film made for Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. As George and Margaret Blackledge, respectively, Costner and Lane reprise roles seemingly tailored to them. Costner spends most of the film speaking in bursts, interspersed with the brooding, loving and occasional playful moment. Lane as Margaret, however, is the emotional backbone of the film.
“Let Him Go” opens to Costner admiring his soon-to-die son, James (Ryan Bruce). Bezucha never explicitly tells what kind of father George is, but wan smiles, quiet observation and loving respect all give the inkling he admires James for James, not for being “his boy.” That love doesn’t stop with James, but extends to Lorna (Kayli Carter), James’ wife, who will shortly be widowed with a young son. Both mother and son are soon be dragged to North Dakota after Lorna remarries to Donnie (Will Brittain) of the villainous Weboy clan.
The Blackledge grandparents (rather, Margaret) are, of course, having none of it. Margaret packs the car — gun included — and presents George down with the choice to come along or force her to go alone. George, in a far too protracted discussion incongruous with his family values, acquiesces.
Headed by matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville), the Weboys brush off the Blackledge’s campaign for Lorna and child’s return. Futilely, the Blackledges persist, if for nothing more than their root values. And yet, when the film comes to a chaotic turning point in a stale motel room, only the concept of family remains. In a single moment, the love that made “Let Him Go” what it was is gone, replaced by a distraught Maragaret wondering, “What have I done?” after dragging George on a shortsighted rescue mission. It’s true that the plot’s direction was as shortsighted as the rescue mission. The room for the emotional depth that characterized the first half of the film is expelled by Margaret’s guilt and George’s new, cheap machismo.
That’s not to say that love gets forgotten when “Let Him Go” becomes action-packed. George and Margaret remain selfless, if muddied, as Costner takes on a jarring hero role strikingly out of character with the rest of the movie.
Much like George’s evolved character, the elements that worked incredibly hard to establish more than a functional plot are instantly devalued. A touching scene of Margaret’s horse Strawberry being put down is revisited a few times, but by the close it’s a barely substantive attempt to regain its former clarity. Other scenes, such as a heartwarming flashback to George playing with shaving cream with Lorna’s baby, are entirely left behind once the movie changes shape. With the boiling point in the hotel room comes the death of the film’s real emotion.
Before Hollywood’s “magic” intervened, “Let Him Go” was a true foray into letting go — first of James and then the grandson — told from Margaret’s point of view. Where an opportunity for continued inspection of loss presented itself, Bezucha instead delivered a drawn-out, hopelessly lackluster and altogether boring conclusion. In fact, the violent finale, ending with a house on fire, is rather symbolic of the movie. It’s lame gaslighting — of the house and of your own conceptions of the film.
By the end, you might feel as if you’ve been led on by the first half, and at some point you should have walked away. A unique portrayal of grief devolves into riotous calamity, mutinying against itself. Classic Midwestern archetypes see renewed life in “Let Him Go,” but there is no contemporary parallel for such aggravatingly squandered potential.