No longer limited to the confines of the old west, modern westerns have gotten increasingly fascinating over the years. It’s interesting to consider how the height of the cinematic western was only about 70 years removed from the period of time romanticized by the greats of the genre, such as John Ford’s Stagecoach, which was released in 1939 and takes place in 1880. Today, western is more of a loose descriptor of tropes, settings, and themes, none of which inherently require the story to be set in the old west. The new west is fine enough, thank you much, so long as other requirements are duly met.
Which is why movies like No Country for Old Men or Brokeback Mountain do a lot for keeping the genre alive and refreshed. No longer confined to any particular time period, the western has been allowed to grow and evolve without losing that inner core of what makes a western a western. Quiet protagonists; over the top antagonists; a moral sense of right and wrong; the consequences of one’s actions; a setting that evokes the feelings of seclusion, away from any sort of central authority.
All of this can be found in droves in Let Him Go, the latest film from director Thomas Bezucha. Based on the novel by Larry Watson, Let Him Go is a taut thriller that works well within the confines of the neo-western ideal. While by no means groundbreaking, Bezucha has crafted a wonderful little film that helps continue the ongoing evolution of the western genre and what that means.
The film follows Margaret and George Blackledge (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), whose widowed daughter in law Lorna (Kayli Carter), has remarried to the abusive Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain). One day, without a word, Donnie and Lorna vanish from their small town along with Jimmy, Lorna’s son with Margaret and George’s dead son. The two set out from their rural Montana ranch to North Dakota, looking for any trace they can of Weboy and his family, only to get more than they bargained for with the tough as nails Weboy matriarch, Blanche (Lesley Manville).
Unhindered as it is from the confines of old west mythology, one of the best aspects of the neo-western is its ability to play around in other genres. In this case, Let Him Go is just as equally a psychological thriller as it is a western. Bezucha, who also wrote the script, slowly brings the walls in on the narrative which gets increasingly fraught the longer it continues, leading to a truly explosive, classic western style climax.
While Costner hasn’t quite been able to manage a full-scale Costneraissance, his work here does add to the increasing list of reasons why it might be time for a resurgence. Like all great western heroes, he’s reserved and says little, but emotes much with the simple flick of an eye. Lane, who also starred opposite Costner as the Kents in Man of Steel, reminds us what an amazing actress she is, especially working with a story as human as this one.
Manville, alongside Jeffrey Donovan, who plays her brother and Weboy family patriarch, nearly steal the show, however. Both are deliciously villainous and conniving, giving both the audience and the Blackledges the perfect foil for what we might otherwise hope to be a moving family drama. Their introduction ramps up the story in degrees that seem impossible with Let Him Go’s first act, and it’s delightfully terrifying.
Set in conflict, the Blackledges vs the Weboys is a classic family against family western that openly embraces its roots and helps continue to define what the new west can mean. It feels like the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore. It’s not necessarily vying for any awards and its certainly not blockbuster material. Instead, it’s just a solid and engaging story full of heroes and villains we can look up to and despise. Groundbreaking it might not be, it’s never any less thrilling to watch. It’s mix of family drama, neo-western aesthetic, and thriller blend together wonderfully to create a magnificent tale of right and wrong, just like Ford would’ve done.
Let Him Go is now playing in select theaters.