November 6, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Thomas Bezucha
Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana and North Dakota in the early 1960s, the dramatic thriller “Let Him Go” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A retired sheriff and his wife in Montana travel to North Dakota to rescue their grandson and their former daughter-in-law from an abusive and violent family.
Culture Audience: “Let Him Go” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, well-written dramas where family issues intersect with crime.
Movies about child-custody issues usually focus on the parents of the child, but “Let Him Go” is a well-made, taut thriller whose protagonists are grandparents who want to rescue their grandson from an abusive home and raise him in their own loving and safe home. Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, “Let Him Go” is adapted from Larry Watson’s novel of the same name. It’s a very good cinematic interpretation of the book, because the movie adeptly shows the contrasts of the wide open landscapes with the almost-suffocating anxiety that the grandparents experience as their quest to rescue their grandson becomes increasingly dangerous.
The story takes place in the early 1960s, before mobile phones, email and the Internet would make it easier for the couple at the center of the story to track down the violent clan members who have control of the child. It was also in a time and place (the rural Midwest) when custody battles weren’t very likely to go to court by people who didn’t have the money for legal fees and who preferred to take the law into their own hands. The beginning of “Let Him Go” shows what life was like for the grandparents before this family feud turned their life upside down.
George Blackledge (played by Kevin Costner), who’s a retired sheriff, and his wife Margaret Blackledge (played by Diane Lane) are living a tranquil life on their rural Montana ranch. Also living in their home are George and Margaret’s 27-year-old son James (played by Ryan Bruce), who is their only child; James’ wife Lorna (played by Kayli Carter); and James and Lorna’s infant son James Jr., also known as Jimmy.
George and Margaret have been married about the same amount time (30 years) that George was in law enforcement. Even though George is retired and probably has a pension, the family has an additional household income because Margaret and James have a business where they break/train horses. Lorna is a homemaker, but there’s tension between her and Margaret, because Margaret tends to do things (such as take care of the baby) in the way that Margaret thinks is best.
One day, Margaret and George notice that James has not come back from a horse ride that wasn’t supposed to take very long. George goes out looking for James, and he tragically finds James lying dead on a creek embankment with the horse nearby. James has a broken neck, apparently because he was thrown off by the horse.
The movie then fast-forwards three years later. George, Margaret and Jimmy are the only witnesses to a small wedding ceremony between Lorna and a local man named Donnie Weboy (played by Will Brittain), whose last name is pronounced “wee-boy.” The Weboy surname can be interpreted as an interesting play on words, since Donnie and his three siblings are brothers who live in the shadow of their domineering mother.
It’s never explained in the movie how Donnie and Lorna got to know each other, nor is it mentioned what Donnie does for a living. At the wedding ceremony, Donnie’s personality is indiscernible, and his family is not mentioned until George and Margaret have an urgent reason to find Donnie’s relatives. Even though George and Margaret don’t seem to know much about Donnie’s side of the family, George and Margaret attending this wedding ceremony is a sign that they approve of Lorna and Donnie’s marriage on some level.
After Donnie and Lorna get married, Lorna and Jimmy move out of their comfortable home on the spacious ranch and into a small apartment with Donnie in the closest big city. It’s a move that hits Margaret especially hard emotionally, because she has raised Jimmy as if he were her own son, and she won’t be able to see Jimmy as often as she would like. Margaret and George don’t live close to the city, but they live close enough that they can take a trip by car to visit.
One day, Margaret has driven to Donnie and Lorna’s apartment for a surprise visit. Before she can get to the apartment, Margaret sees Donnie, Lorna and Jimmy walking down a nearby street. She’s shocked and dismayed to see Donnie angrily hit Jimmy in the face and then do the same thing to Lorna. Donnie also grabs Lorna and Jimmy in a forceful and abusive way.
Margaret is so upset that she drives away. When she gets home, she tells George what she saw, but they do nothing but worry about how Jimmy (played by twins Bram Hornung and Otto Hornung) is being raised. It’s a sign of the times, when domestic abuse was a lot less likely to be reported than it is now. Margaret and George also didn’t report the abuse because it’s possible that Lorna and Jimmy would deny the abuse happened, out of fear, and then it would be Margaret’s word against Donnie’s.
After witnessing the abuse, Margaret goes back to the apartment on another day. And she’s in for another shock. A neighbor tells Margaret that Donnie, Lorna and Jimmy abruptly moved away to stay with Donnie’s family in North Dakota. It’s at that point that Margaret makes up her mind to not only track them down but also to get Jimmy and possibly Lorna to move back in with Margaret and George.
At first, George is reluctant to interfere, and he expresses concern that he and Margaret are too old to raise Jimmy. But when George sees that nothing will stop Margaret from this mission, he goes along with her because he thinks that she will need protection. And so, George and Margaret go on a road trip to find Jimmy and rescue him from what they’re sure is an abusive household. “Let Him Go” has several impressive panoramic scenes of the open roads and land during this journey.
The first order of business is to find out where the Weboy family lives in North Dakota. George gets help from his connections in law enforcement. Through this investigation, George and Margaret discover that the Weboy clan is a family of troublemakers with a history of illegal violence. Early on in the trip, George got upset when he found out that Margaret brought a loaded gun. But later on, that gun might come in handy.
During their travels on the open road, George and Margaret meet a young Native American man named Peter Dragswolf (played by Booboo Stewart), who’s in his late teens or early 20s, and has been living on his own for the past three years due to some problems in his family. Peter has a stallion as his only companion. Margaret and Peter bond over their love of horses, and it brings back bittersweet memories of Margaret and George’s son James.
George and Margaret eventually continue on their journey and part ways with Peter. But is this the last time that Peter will be in the story? Of course not.
During many parts of this movie, George and Margaret, who both have very stoic and strong-willed personalities, share silent moments that are neither awkward nor out-of-place. George and Margaret are people who are used to living simple, uncomplicated lives. And their longtime marriage has given them a comfort level where they don’t need to be chattering nonstop to be in tune with each other.
It isn’t long before George and Margaret track down the Weboy relative who will introduce them to the rest of the clan: Billy Weboy (played by Jeffrey Donovan) is one of Donnie’s older brothers. When Billy first meets George and Margaret, Billy comes across as smarmy and deceptive and as someone who likes to play mind games. George and Margaret tell Billy who they are, but don’t tell him about their plans to take Jimmy away. The grandparents just pretend that they only want to visit Jimmy and Lorna.
George is immediately suspicious of Billy and doesn’t try to hide his wariness. Margaret has a different approach because she figures that if she’s nice to Billy, he is more likely to cooperate with them. Margaret’s tactic works. Billy takes them to the Weboy family home, where George and Margaret have a very brief and uncomfortable reunion with Jimmy and Lorna, who appear to be very afraid of living in the Weboy home.
Why was this meeting so awkward? Because the Weboy family’s widowed matriarch Blanche (played by Lesley Manville, in full villainous mode) insists that they stay for dinner, but she sternly orders Jimmy to go to bed because he didn’t finish eating something. Blanche makes it very clear to George and Margaret that she expects all of her sons (and any of her son’s children) to live in her home and abide by her overbearing rules.
Blanche also reveals that she holds a grudge because she and the rest of the Weboys weren’t invited to Donnie’s wedding. Even when George and Margaret explain that Donnie never mentioned his family, and they didn’t know about the Weboy family until recently, Blanche still acts resentful toward George and Margaret. This menacing grandmother also suspects the real reason why George and Margaret have come to town.
Blanche is one of these villains who tries to mask her wickedness with smiles, but her hateful personality can still be seen underneath the fake politeness. Her late husband Henry is briefly mentioned in the movie, but not much else is said about Henry except that he’s dead. In addition to Billy and Donnie, Blanche’s other children are Elton (played by Connor Mackay) and Marvin (played by Adam Stafford).
Donnie is the youngest brother, and he’s the only brother who seems to be married with a child. Donnie definitely acts like a control freak with Lorna and Jimmy, but the one person who has control over Donnie is Blanche. Considering the very restrictive lifestyle imposed on Lorna, it might be a little surprising to some viewers that Donnie has let Lorna take a job outside of the home (she works as a sales clerk/cashier in a clothing store), but that might be out of necessity since it’s never made clear what Donnie does for a living, if he works at all.
Movies about adults fighting over custody of a child tend to be argumentative and at times overly melodramatic. “Let Him Go” avoids the usual stereotypes of making this family feud play out in the court system or in public shaming. Instead, the grandparents want to keep this battle as private as possible. The issue of domestic violence is handled in a way that it’s expected to be handled in a story that takes place in an era when survivors of domestic violence didn’t have shelters and assistance programs to the extent that these resources exist now.
There are moments of rage and gripping suspense in “Let Him Go,” but that emotional turn in the movie doesn’t really come later until Margaret and George come to the conclusion that the Weboys are irredeemably abusive and evil. Writer/director Bezucha skillfully brings a “slow burn” quality to this film that leads up to a gripping showdown by the end of the movie.
A lot of the beauty of “Let Him Go” is in how Lane and Costner express the internal resolve of these very determined grandparents. Manville has a fairly predictable villainous character in Blanche, but Manville portrays Blanche as someone who truly believes that what she’s doing is what’s best for her family. What most people would see as abusive, Blanche would describe as “tough love.”
Carter’s portrayal of Lorna character isn’t always the domestic-abuse stereotype of being constantly fearful and meek. She has moments of wanting to assert her individual identity, but she’s usually shut down by an older person (usually Blanche or Margaret), who tells her what she should do instead of asking her what she thinks. Lorna’s background as an orphan is mentioned, and it gives viewers some context over why she doesn’t have any biological relatives who can help her. Later in the story, Lorna and Margaret have an emotionally touching scene where they come to terms with their tension-filled relationship. It’s one of the highlights of the film.
“Let Him Go” has moments that might be a little too quiet or slow-paced for people who expect thrillers to have a lot of non-stop action. But just like Margaret and George in the movie, “Let Him Go” has a steady and deliberate pace that people should not mistake for weakness. Underneath is the type of grit and courage that won’t back down from a fight.
Focus Features released “Let Him Go” in U.S. cinemas on November 6, 2020.