“Let Him Go,” a new film arriving in theaters, seems to fit five genres at once and no genre at all, and that’s what’s good about it. A dramatic thriller about an aging couple fighting to free their young grandson from a high-country criminal clan, it has aspects of an action film that stay on low boil for much of the running time. It’s a taciturn but tense portrait of a long-lasting marriage. It’s an occasion for some fine underacting and one piece of juicy, overcooked ham. Oh, and it’s a bit of a modern-day western, too.
Mostly “Let Him Go” is about what would happen if “Death Wish” were cast with the couple from “American Gothic.”
They are George and Margaret Blackledge, a retired sheriff and his wife living on a Montana ranch, and they are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane with easy authority and our genetic memories of all the roles they’ve appeared in over the years. George is a man of very few words — Costner’s allegiances to Gary Cooper have never seemed clearer — and Margaret is compassionate, maternal, and impulsive, a backcountry helpmate with more than a little of the rebellious teenager left in her.
After an opening scene that recounts the tragic death of their son (Ryan Bruce), writer-director Thomas Bezucha (adapting a novel by Larry Watson) has the couple watching warily as their widowed daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter, “Private Life”) marries a man they’re convinced is no good. The conviction is quickly borne out and then the young couple disappears, taking Lorna’s little boy, Jimmy (played by twins Bram and Otto Hornung), with them.
The early scenes focus on Lane’s Margaret as she immediately packs to go find them and bring the boy home, arguing with her reluctant husband every step of the way. As “Let Him Go” follows the trail over the border to the North Dakota badlands, we glimpse the glue that binds these two together and the sand that still chafes between them. George steps into a liquor store for some paper-bag courage; “Happy?” asks his wife sharply. “Happy not to get a lecture,” he snaps back.
Without giving away too much, their journey brings them to the Weboy family — the name alone conjures up Tennessee Williams’s “no-neck monsters” — all big, hostile men except for bottle-blond matriarch Blanche Weboy, who comes off as Ma Barker’s less inhibited sister and who is played by the fine British actress Lesley Manville — the sister in “Phantom Thread” — with extra mustard and an accent out of the bargain bin at Walmart. When Blanche shows up, prodding her guests to have some “po-ack chops” and slinging veiled insults like a late-period Bette Davis heroine, the movie’s pulse immediately jumps from resting to full-on fibrillation.
Bezucha has kept the pace slow and careful up until then, which pays off with a pair of scenes that tighten the tension to an almost unbearable point before culminating in a shocking act of violence you see coming and feel powerless to stop. The rest of “Let Him Go” is satisfying as payback if somewhat less urgent as drama, and if Booboo Stewart doesn’t get much to do as an emotionally damaged Native American teen the couple enlists for help, at least Manville gets to chew the limbs off a few more scenes before the end credits. The movie’s worth seeing for its unpretentious craft and its performances big and small, but I could swear this is a crazy-ass women’s picture hiding inside a rawboned action drama. It’s the contradictions that sell it.
LET HIM GO
Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, based on a novel by Larry Watson. Starring Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Lesley Manville. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 114 minutes. R (violence).