Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Family Matters: LET HIM GO

The most frightening aspect of the exceptionally taut thriller Let Him Go is the bloodlust it whipped up in me. I can’t remember the last time I was so involved in one of these that I was on the edge of my seat rooting for the painful punishment of its villains. But there I was, by the end of the picture, hoping against hope that Diane Lane or Kevin Costner would get to that shotgun and blast Lesley Manville and Jeffrey Donovan away. This is a masterfully manipulative bit of moviemaking, the kind of clean, spare, simple story — a sort of mournful melancholy Magic Hour midcentury western — that gets its hooks in early and pulls tighter as the suspense simmers and you just know the only way out will be bloody. Lane and Costner bring a leathery goodness and low-boil righteous anger to their roles as rancher grandparents whose only child has died. His widow (Kayli Carter) remarried a man who, it is quickly clear, is abusing her. When the new husband suddenly up and moves to North Dakota, absconding with his new wife and her son, our leads’ beloved grandson, the older couple decides to track them down and make sure they’re all right. They’re so not. The abusive husband, turns out, comes from a whole family of abusers, a manipulative, controlling bunch held together under the domineering watch of a cruel matriarch (Manville), her creepy brother (Donovan), and her gaggle of large adult sons. When our sympathetic leads finally get their way to their grandson — the way there winding, and full of long sighs and pregnant pauses and weary pulp wisdom like “that’s all life is: a list of what we have lost” — it’s sadly apparent that the new in-laws are not about to let the grandson or her mother out of their sight. By the second half of the picture, it’s become a tense battle of wills between the new and old in-laws, and we’re on Lane and Costner’s side every step of the way. It’s clear they need to save their grandson and former daughter-in-law from the clutches of this awful family, but how to navigate such an extrication is trickier by the moment. As danger rises, it’s clear there’s no easy way to loosen these villains’ grip.

Thomas Bezucha writes and directs with a keen eye for simple, direct emotion, clear and crackling spare dialogue, and classic widescreen staging. He’s composing shots to tighten disconnection between our leads and their foes, or to allow the blocking to heighten the danger of encroaching ill intentions, while balancing the vast open spaces that make this mid-20th-century western landscape look every bit the inheritor of the traditional family feud western. And he trusts his cast to imbue the underpinnings and subtext of scenes with weight and pain, allowing Lane and Costner the easy empathy and tough decisions that the shark-like maneuvering and twisted logic of Manville and her brood lack. It’s a balance of control the cast plays out, confident and still, gentle with a spine of steel, inevitable in trajectory but alive in the moment. And it all serves the crisp plot that slides into place with a cast iron weight and a dried-meat snap. Bezucha builds the desire for revenge so achingly that it somehow uses the barest layer of sentimentality to crack open the most intensely felt rage. These sweet grandparents simply must be reunited with their grandson and save him from the cruelties of his new stepparent. Buzucha, whose previous films are the 2005 ensemble Christmas comedy The Family Stone, and 2011’s sparkling G-rated girls’ vacation lark Monte Carlo, usually does fine work with family dynamics. Here he adds Eastwood-inspired filmmaking: direct, plain-spoken, uncomplicated, and driven by a small-c conservative vision of domesticity and safety. It has a relaxed confidence of vision and bone-deep understanding of character that makes its grip all the tighter. Its gripping finale and explosive desire for a righteous reckoning is hard-fought and well-earned. This is a terrific, expertly crafted thriller.

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