Briefly, Let Him Go sees Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, the Blackledges, bury their son, and then chase their toddler grandson across state lines to save him from his new stepfather and his family. They stumble into a western-gothic landscape populated by ne'er-do-wells who seemingly want to raise the grandson in a brutalized world without honor or civility.
Bezucha uses almost every facet of filmmaking to help raise the pressure. This isn't a quick flick of the switch. Starting just after the opening shots, Bezucha builds his ominous mood slowly and deliberately. In fact, the pace of the buildup contributes to the overall mood of unease. The film doesn't reach a boil until sometime in the last quarter of the film. You know it's coming, you just can't tell when. Bezucha raises the pressure so subtly that by the time it's firing on all cylinders, you don't realize you've been sitting on the edge of your seat for over an hour already.
Much of the interaction between Costner and Lane is shot in natural-looking light. The shadows and color temperature reflect the environments they find themselves in. However, every time the two heroes take a new step towards the Weboy family that has taken their grandson, the shadows get longer and deeper and the temperature of light gets warmer. Bezucha makes it feel almost suffocating.
As the Blackledges face the grief of losing their son and then their grandson, the film is scripted to slowly let the audience in on several secrets. I'm not interested in spoiling it, so I'll just say that each secret doesn't amount to a big moment or turning point, but each little bit of new information is designed to push the audience just a little closer to the edge.
Just as the color temperature changes as the journey unfolds, so too does the landscape that the Blackledges find themselves in. They move from the big sky country of Montana, with its rolling green foothills and spectacularly white mountain peaks, to the dusty badlands of South Dakota. Cinematographer Guy Godfree continues to make every frame feel like a painting, but the landscape itself gets increasingly depressing.
Starting with soft strains of grief, symbolized by melodic string instruments, the score slowly becomes more staccato. We find ourselves listening to a percussion-like ticking, almost like a time bomb, as the Blackledges draw closer and closer to their first interaction with the full Weboy clan. It's subtle. But again, it's just enough to make you feel uncomfortable.
By the time we make it to the Weboy's farmstead, Bezucha has primmed. As the camera slowly pans to introduce the real villain of the film, matriarch grandmother Blanche Weboy, we also meet our first blonde.
In this case, an unnatural blonde whose hair makes her look completely out of place, more like a witch than anything else that jumps to mind. Seeing Blanche's hair is the final moment of slow burn. From this point, the film takes on the feel of a thriller and races to the inevitable confrontation.
A Few Notes
I love Westerns. The genre includes some of my personal favorites. From a critical point of view, Westerns are important cultural mileposts. Stretching all the way back to Porter's The Great Train Robbery, American Westerns offer viewers a way to see an evolution of U.S. social or cultural norms. As U.S. culture changes, so do the rules for their Westerns. Westerns been metaphors for the manifest destiny of U.S. expansionism on the continent; disenchantment with the commercial state and the Great Depression; calls to patriotism in the rising shadow of Nazism and confrontation with Japan in the Pacific; a fondness for simpler times after the revelations of Auschwitz and the horrors of World War II; an acknowledgment of and subsequent repudiation of violence during the Vietnam War; a call for women's rights, for racial equality; and a reflection of the existential crisis created by the modern capitalist state. The Western genre shoulders quite a bit of weight in critical circles.
As a gothic Western, it seems like Let Him Go reaches to discuss several important issues we currently find ourselves mired in, but doesn't quite grasp them in a way that would help lift the film to the top of the genre.
It's interesting to note that Lane's protagonist grandmother and the Weboy matriarch, Blanche, actually seem to want the same thing and are willing to go to extreme lengths to get it. One is our hero, one is the villain. Is Bezucha intentionally or unintentionally commenting on flaws of the two-party state? We, unfortunately, don't get enough screen time spent exploring this odd duality to satisfy me.
In their trek to save their grandson, the Blackledges fall in with Peter Dragswolf, a native American who escaped the residential school system. In describing his background, Dragswolf tells of how he was stolen from home by the state and forced to go to a school designed to "beat the Indian out of him," as he puts it. Here, we're confronted with the similarity between the Blackledge's loss of their grandson and Dragswolf's story of losing his family, but little time is spent on this. Instead, Dragswolf is used by the Blackledges for their own ends. Interestingly, he acts as a trailblazer or scout when war finally erupts between the Blackledges and the Weboys, hearkening, without a payoff, to the use of First Nations peoples in the various wars fought throughout North America from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Again, without spoiling it, the last few moments of the film and some of its most beautifully melancholic shots echo Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. Given that Let Him Go takes a hard look at the costs of doing the right thing, this association makes sense. Here again, though, I find myself wanting more commentary on the theme of sacrifice that the two films seem to have in common.
It's a slow roll, so I understand why some of these themes are left incomplete. After all, the pacing needs to rev up at some point, which it does very well at the climax. I just wish the film was a bit longer and took a bit more time to explore the more esoteric themes it references.
All images from Let Him Go are courtesy of Focus Pictures' press pool images, except where noted.