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As with most split personality movies, Let Him Go doesn’t quite work.

High Midnight

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are the Blackledges
Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are the Blackledges

Let Him Go is based on a novel by Larry Watson, which seems to have been at least fairly well received when it was published back in 2013. Naturally, there were changes made while making the move from page to screen. For one thing, the book was set in 1951; the movie adds a decade, pushing the setting to 1961.

That’s all fine and dandy. The trouble is — maybe — the book’s success is driven by Watson’s personal writing style more than anything else. As a movie, it turns into a jarring mix of a touching love story of a husband and wife, long married and mourning the loss of their son, with a queasy thriller about a psychotic family living deep in the open expanse of North Dakota.

The tensions simmer when that wife, Margaret Blackledge (Diane Lane), sees her former daughter-in-law, Lorna, and grandson, Jimmy, being abused out in public by the widow’s new husband, Donnie Weboy.

At first blush, Margaret’s response is brash and impractical. She wants to steal away Jimmy (and Lorna, if willing) and shelter him in a safe environment. It’s a tough argument, but nothing one scene of conversation won’t solve. Her husband, George (Kevin Costner), a retired sheriff, agrees to confront the family, but they’re too late. The clan’s already packed up and bolted for the Weboy ranch.

Moon Wink

Mashups such as this suit a certain taste. Most of the time, they involve comedy to help gloss over the narrative problems (think of quirkfests like American Ultra and Kajillionaire). The trouble is, without a grounding in logic, the mash-up oftentimes comes across as more exploitative than effective. And this one is most certainly lacking a sense of humor. It’s something along the lines of Louis L’Amour meets Blumhouse.

In the case of Let Him Go, it’s less of a character study of this loving, grieving couple and their quiet, quaint country life, and more of a manhandled examination of Old West sentiments thrust into more recent times. Surely there’s a reason why the story’s set 60 or 70 years ago. That immediately removes the modern conveniences of the internet and smartphones, for one thing. The action and reasoning are safely suspended in another era.

As Donnie (Will Brittain, Savage Youth) enters the picture, followed by his brother, there’s a sinking feeling of trepidation. Everything about the Weboys seems uneasy; people speak apprehensively, guardedly about the clan. They seem to be a part of an off-kilter nuclear family along the lines of Norman and Mother Bates. It doesn’t help matters when the Blackledges are escorted to the Weboys’ home, an old country mansion out in the boonies that bears some resemblance to the creepy Bates house.

Then enters Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread) and all bets are off. She’s all set to out-shock anything in Psycho or any given (older) Bette Davis movie. Describing Blanche as over the top is an understatement.

Go Careful

Lesley Manville is Blanche Weboy
Lesley Manville is Blanche Weboy

To his credit, director Thomas Bezucha (the light family comedy Monte Carlo) creates more tension than Liam Neeson’s recent flick, Honest Thief, managed to muster. And that’s why Let Him Go is both hard to dismiss and yet challenging to appreciate.

There are some deep reflections as the movie opens. The recovery of his son’s body serves as a haunting, inescapable flashback for George and he offers this observation to Margaret, “Sometimes that’s all life is – a list of what we’ve lost.” That sad sentiment is meshed in with the idyllic tempo of the Blackledge’s rural life, further accompanied by the atmospheric strumming of the film’s score, composed by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles).

There’s some weight in those moments between George and Margaret (and it’s a point of interest Costner and Lane have played a married couple before, as Jonathan and Martha Kent in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman). Give them credit for making their relationship come alive and feel real. Given their preference for the hard life of the open country, it becomes acceptable that — while on their road trip in search of the Weboys — they’re perfectly content to stay in a town’s jail because they’re told it’s the cleanest place in town.

That folksiness, though, is countered with the craziness of the Weboy family. It’s somehow hard to swallow, but at the same time all of the setup surrounding the plaintive country life further fuels the jarring intensity of the Blackledge v Weboy showdown.