Film & TV

Let Him Go: A Morally Superior Neo-Western

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in Let Him Go. (Kimberley French/Focus Features)
America’s evil past, dished up, smugly, as an allegory for our sinful present

Deep in the divided heart of Hollywood, contempt for middle America clashes with greed for its ticket dollars. This puts Hollywood’s sophisticated movie elites at cross-purposes because they also chase acclaim — and receive approval — from the disdainful media ranks. The bizarre new Kevin Costner film Let Him Go makes all this infuriatingly clear.

It’s a genre-movie update, a “modern” Western set in late 1950s Montana where stoic retired lawman George Blackledge (Costner) and his no-nonsense wife Margaret (Diane Lane) mourn their son’s death. They long to reunite with their only grandchild, now estranged after the mother remarries — to a lout from a lawless clan. When the Blackledges seek to rescue their progeny, American hell breaks loose.

Let Him Go imitates the nation-defining myths of Westerns but gets the virtues of genre movies quite wrong. The Blackledges’ virtues come secondhand. Director Thomas Bezucha cast Costner and Lane for no apparent reason other than to evoke their poignant roles in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as Pa and Ma Kent, the Joseph and Mary figures to Jor-El/Clark/Superman. Yet  Bezucha, pursuing a moral vision slightly different from Snyder’s, moves into oversimplified good-vs.-evil shoot-’em-up territory. Americana myths turn into nightmares, pitting the Blackledges’ class characteristics against those of Neanderthals, headed by a treacherous matriarch with the knee-slapper name of Blanche Weboy (played by British actress Lesley Manville).

Blanche suggests a feudal warlord in a samurai movie. Her tribe perpetrates every manner of social injustice: They’re racist, sexist, anti-Jewish, and homophobic. She’s also power-mad. Having despoiled her brood of wicked sons, Blanche threatens to ruin the next generation. This cartoonishly corrupt figure exposes Let Him Go’s petty pretense: Blanche, who embodies the sin-sick souls of American white folks, is actually a projection of elite Hollywood’s now-familiar phobias and biases.

In 2005, Bezucha critiqued all that with The Family Stone, an exemplary, ironic Christmas movie. In it, Bezucha shrewdly assessed his Amherst background through the casual prejudices of a select, politically correct lineage. But in Let Him Go, that arrogance is converted into vengeance, the ruling-class anger seen throughout the mainstream-media echelons. The only moment worthy of The Family Stone is Margaret’s apology to the daughter-in-law she never much liked.

Let Him Go is almost a confession of Millennial class resentment: The plot avoids social complexities pertaining to contemporary child protective services and government welfare, as well as Native-American land rights and sexual-orientation protections. Instead, Bezucha revives the Western genre — as a variation on Taken and The Searchers. Lamenting the past is the Hollywood liberal way of reproving what America has become. (It’s a Make Americans Democrats movie.) This frightened nostalgia discloses powerlessness. At their son’s gravesite, Margaret sulks, “I don’t need reminding. I know what I’ve lost.” George proclaims, “Sometimes that’s all that’s left, a list of what we’ve lost.” The one good sequence: George collecting his dead son’s body is a swifter version of Malick’s A Hidden Life montages, a similar attempt at recovering lost morality.

Using the neo-Western to convey contemporary secular antagonism is akin to flag-burning atheism. George cuts off a radio evangelist’s spiel about “drowning in a lake of fire,” rejecting biblical judgment for a world without a Superman. It turns out that Zack Snyder provides the wrong model; Bezucha should have gone for cosmic horror and moral justice as in S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.

Deep in the divided heart of Hollywood, as a great critic once said about Hud (the Sixties neo-Western attempt to sort out heroism and villainy), self-congratulatory politics rule. The industry’s baseless morality is complicated by the need to show off its moral superiority. Let Him Go ultimately confuses the Weboys and the Blackledges: While Blanche recalls the hellcat matriarch Irene Dailey richly portrayed in Robert Aldrich’s underrated gangster film The Grissom Gang, Margaret comes across as every bit as angry and vengeful as Hillary Clinton. And Costner wears his familiar Western heartache, which was never any more fake. Bezucha’s narrative comes down to this: superior but dissatisfied Americans vs. Hillary’s “Deplorables” and Biden’s “Chumps.”

The times are so stunning — especially this election week — it’s hard to tolerate Bezucha’s smug allegory of past conflicts and virtues. Before COVID, one could show disgust with the dumb haughtiness of Let Him Go by walking out on it.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.