Let Him Go, Thomas Bezucha’s adaptation of the novel by Larry Watson, is one of the quieter masterpieces of the year – a neo-western that announces its originality gradually and modestly. In essence, it’s a revisionist take on The Searchers, in which a recovery expedition is mounted not against American Indians, but against the old-fashioned Western mentality that The Searchers celebrated. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner play Margaret and George Blackledge, a middle-aged Montana couple whose world is thrown into disarray when their son James dies in a horse accident. Things get even worse when James’ widow Lorna, played by Kayli Carter, marries Donnie Weeboy, played by Will Brittain, meaning that Margaret and George’s grandson Jimmy is now at the mercy of the Weeboy clan, headed by matriarch Blanche, played by Lesley Manville, who lives in the wilds of North Dakota. When Donnie relocates Lorna and Jimmy to the family ranch with no explanation, Margaret and George set out to recover him, growing increasingly desperate in their efforts to thwart the Weeboy clan.
Part of the pleasure of the film is its textures and objects, which reflect characters determined to be proud in their surroundings and possessions, however modest and faded they may be. Margaret and George’s journey from Montana to North Dakota is traced through a series of vignettes that capture this modest pride, starting with the cake that Margaret takes to Lorna’s house on the morning she discovers that Donnie has taken her back to his family home. Rather than waste the cake, Margaret repackages it for the road trip, which takes her and George past the cemetery where James is buried – a small collection of well-kept graves surrounded by a wire fence that separates them from the rolling scrub. Having paid their respects to their son, Margaret and George link up with a sheriff who works in the town adjoining the Weeboy ranch – George is an ex-sheriff himself – and spend the night in the jail after Margaret informs him that her only requirement for accommodation is safety and cleanliness. Between Margaret and George’s home, the cemetery and the jail, Bezucha paints a picture of a modest lifestyle that correlates with the tempered modesty of his own film, which stays close to genre cues, but in ways that make its originality starker and more striking.
This convergence of house, jail and cemetery also makes Margaret and George feel more homeless as the film proceeds – a trend that eventually culminates with Margaret deciding to live with Peter Dragswolf, a North Dakota Indian played by Booboo Stewart, so that she can catch occasional glimpses of her grandson when he comes into town with the Weeboys. With home abstracted, the Blackledges focus on objects and textures that remind them of their grandson (and son), giving the entire film a sense of care and frugality. Again, Bezucha’s direction follows suit, as he takes great care with the poise and pace of his characters, allowing their traits and their past to emerge organically, with the result that the first act – before we arrive at the Weeboy ranch – works as a series of vignettes as much as an integrated film. Much of this opening part of the story exudes a finely-tuned, old-timey sentimentality, but it never becomes saccharine, and in fact works beautifully to accentuate the suspense, texturing the lulls in the narrative so that the peaks feel even more dramatic.
This sense of textured care also contrasts dramatically with the cavalier cruelty of the Weeboys, turning the trip from Montana to North Dakota into a journey into the heart of the Old West. The closer we get to the Weeboys, the more Bezucha situates the film in the mid-1960s, meaning that the Blackledges are transitional figures – raised on the mythos of the West, on cinema and television, but still young enough to glimpse the changes that are around the corner as well. Conversely, the Weeboys personify the Old West in the most monstrous way, meaning that Let Him Go also dissociates the Old West from the family values that so often seem to go along with it in the present, both ideologically and aesthetically. Here, at this pivotal moment, the Old West no longer has a stranglehold on family values in the Western states, but the New West, the neoconservative West, hasn’t quite kicked in either, meaning the Weeboys are poised somewhere between the antiheroes of the classical Western and the Western brand of Trumpism and Republicanism so prevalent at the moment.
In other words, Let Him Go tactfully reminds us that family values aren’t the province of the Western stylisations that so often claim these values as their own in Trump’s America. For that reason, it made sense to me that the director of the film was openly gay, since there’s a queerness to the film’s scepticism about the way that family values can be co-opted and naturalised to serve a particular cause, especially the kind of monstrosity that the Weeboys exemplify here. Westerns are so often typified by an irreducible sense of moral certainty, and an inexorable sense of good and evil, but the originality of Let Him Go lies in how dextrously Bezucha turns this certainty back upon itself, forcing us to question the role that the supposed moral certainty of the Western plays as a conservative consensus point in American culture. To that end, Bezucha never quite elevates the Weeboys’ violence and horror to the sublime spectacle that might be expected from classical Western antiheroes – while they’re extremely violent, their physical abuse is always awkward, messy and ungainly to just the right degree.
The same goes for Blanche, and Manville, as the head of the Weeboy clan. In recent years, series like Fargo and Godless have produced a renewed fascination with the Western matriarch, and how this figure might be used to dislocate the Western’s moral certainty from the privileged role it holds in conservative American iconography. Yet whereas Godless opts for a high seriousness and Fargo falls back upon irony, Let Him Go charts a more modest road even as it eviscerates this Western moral certainty from within. The result is a more interesting role for both Lane and Manville than anything in Fargo or Godless, imbuing Lane with a moral urgency that makes this amongst the best roles of her career, while forcing Manville to play the Western matriarch for bathos, producing a performance that’s as oddly and wonderfully atonal as her part in Phantom Thread. In a film that is so precise about sound, Manville’s English intontations sound uncanny beneath her North Dakotan accent, preventing her ever quite inhabiting the film, much as the film refuses to let the Weeboys ever quite inhabit the family values that their classical Western backdrop seems to signal as their own.
The result is a kind of exhaustion of Western masculinity and moral certainty precisely insofar as it plays itself out in the kinds of matriarchal revisions that Fargo, in particular, espouses. Since those revisions are high concept by design, Let Him Go can occasionally feel as if it is non-conceptual, or not conceptual enough, but that’s deceptive, since Bezucha operates by involuting genre from within, rather than making grand changes from without. And in doing so he pinpoints the 1960s as the moment when the iconography of the classical Western segued into the iconography of neoconservatism, poising us, and the film, on that precipice to make us question what’s at stake in our Western enjoyment and attachment in the present.