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Sensational acting, sharp dialogue may make ‘Let Him Go’ 2020’s best

It’s a rare film that offers equal doses of excitement and food for thought; one that provides both subtle nuance and visceral action; where the story feels wholly authentic — because it’s driven by believable characters, rather than artificial plot contrivances.

“Let Him Go” is one such title; frankly, it’s the best new movie I have seen this year.

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play Montana ranchers whose adult son dies unexpectedly — leaving behind a young widow and a three-year-old boy. Daughter-in-law Lorna remarries an abuser, and the new family suddenly disappears without even saying goodbye. So the devastated and suspicious grandparents — George Blackledge, a former lawman, and his wife, Margaret, who fears losing a second male descendant — go after them, tangling with the fearsome family Lorna married into.

This Weboy clan is symbolically named, since it comprises four grown sons, including not only Lorna’s new husband but also two faceless thugs and a creepy-cheerful ringleader (another beautifully menacing performance from Jeffrey Donovan).

But this in-grown group is run by the bleach-blonde Blanche, an autocratic, chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking widow who likewise doesn’t want to lose any more family — and that includes her brand-new grandson. She is brilliantly played by the British actress Lesley Manville (“Ordinary Love,” “Phantom Thread,” “Maleficent” and a forthcoming version of Paul Gallico’s beloved novel “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris”).

Things get ugly fast, with a magnificently acted slow-burn dinner scene — and, shortly thereafter, a furious middle-of-the-night standoff. And then, just when you think things are settling down, “Let Him Go” hurtles into a truly explosive climax — about which the less said, the better.

Yet despite this spellbinding action, what sticks with you here is a potent look at decision-making between husbands and wives in a 1950s era that is often regarded as entirely patriarchal. George doesn’t want to go after the grandson, but he commits nonetheless because the fiercely stubborn Margaret insists — and he knows she should not go alone. This is a sacrifice for him, and it won’t be his last.

Yet even though Margaret makes most of the decisions, we see one key moment when George silently but firmly insists on a certain sane course of action — and Margaret submits. Indeed, if one spouse is simply given leeway to do whatever they wish, the result is a family like the Weboys, where Blanche’s overbearing reign proves cruel, selfish and disastrous.

Both Lane and Costner are sensational; this might be Lane’s last best hope at an Oscar (she’s been nominated only once). The film also features a terrific Michael Giacchino score; impressive photography of rugged Western wilderness; and spare but laser-sharp dialogue, with many interchanges that require us to read between the lines.

A few samples:

“There’s nothing smaller in this world than a child’s coffin.”

“I can tell you where the folks are buried that ain’t buried in the cemetery” (this from a Native American who befriends the Blackledges).

And: “Sometimes that’s all life is, Margaret. A list of what we’ve lost.”

That’s good writing; and it points back to the title — which, incidentally, doesn’t mean what you think.

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