There’s a vital, game-changing scene in robust neo-western thriller Let Him Go that occurs as the last act beckons, one that finally reveals the true nature of what we’ve been watching up until that point. In a jolting, gonzo act of violence, the film, which initially presents itself as a polite, handsomely made, awards-aiming picture starring one Oscar winner and two nominees, lurches into a grindhouse thriller, a bombastic B-movie whose earlier pretensions of grandeur burn up into flames, quite literally, in the gory all-out finale that soon follows. It’s a fun switch-up, and one that audiences are better off preparing for as they enter, for it forgives some of the film’s clunkier early moments, rather like accepting this year’s adaptation of The Invisible Man as schlock horror instead of the sleek psycho-thriller it pretends to be.
It’s not that the set-up of the film, an adaptation of Larry Watson’s bestselling 60s-set novel, isn’t engaging in itself, it’s just so rooted in dusty Oscar-bait tropes that we don’t expect it to go so drastically from mild to wild, from prestige to pulp, to distinguish itself as something other than been-here-seen-that Sunday afternoon viewing. It’s the story of married couple George (Kevin Costner) and Margaret (Diane Lane) who live a contented, quiet life on their Montana ranch. But when their son gets killed in an accident and their daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) remarries, they’re forced into a difficult position. Her new husband Donnie (Will Brittain) is brisk and short-tempered, and without warning, he takes both Lorna and her son, George and Margaret’s grandson, away. The pair are then propelled on the road, led by Margaret, all the way to Donnie’s notorious Weboy family, led by the fearsome matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville), who won’t, you know, let him go without a fight.
Underneath the slick studio surface, there’s something compellingly discordant about Let Him Go, as one might expect from a violent thriller brought to the screen by the guy who made The Family Stone and Monte Carlo. For the most part, there’s an earnest, old-fashioned sturdiness to writer-director Thomas Bezucha’s tale, anchored by the reliable, old-shoes pairing of Lane and Costner, who last parented in 2013’s Man of Steel. The simplicity of their quest (get him back) and the straightforward propulsion of the first act makes it hard not to get at least moderately involved even if the specifics of the predicament are less easily explained (the amount of times Lane has to detail that it’s the boy of the remarried wife of their dead son they’re looking for becomes drinking-game worthy). What’s most interesting about the couple’s dynamic is how Lane takes the lead, the active to Costner’s passive, driven not only by a mother’s love but also a righteous anger. Too often, women who lose children on screen are painted as deranged while men get to be stoic, so it’s refreshing to see this tired and sexist cliche upended, and Lane, whose acting can often be a little mechanical, rises to the challenge with a commanding, often fiery, performance.
But it’s only when the pair meet their final destination that things get really juicy, facing off against the film’s boss-level foe: an unlikely doozy of a role for Manville, the result of a Hollywood bump from her recent Oscar nomination, styled like a faded 50s bombshell with a bite that’s as bad as her bark. Like all good villains, she’s used minimally, and in just a few scenes, Manville yanks the film out of the hands of her higher-wattage co-stars, devouring her prickly dialogue while amplifying her room-stopping death stare from Phantom Thread tenfold – and then some. While she can’t quite convince with a comically uneven accent, she’s so electric to watch that it doesn’t really matter, and it’s her fierce, full-throated performance that thrusts the film into its ferocious last act. There’s a certain giddiness to Bezucha hurtling from a buttoned up A-movie to a balls-out B-movie, as if he can finally just breathe and as Let Him Go lets go, in a furious finale, my only quibble was that I wanted a bit more of the mayhem that takes centre stage, too much too late almost.
With its handsome, and expensive, period recreation, a wide rural American canvas and an audience-provoking last act, it’s a shame that more of us won’t get to enjoy Let Him Go on the big screen, where it truly belongs. But for those who will, they’re in for a wild ride.
Let Him Go is released in cinemas in the US on 6 November and in the UK on 18 December