It begins and ends as an elegy, a somber remembrance of past times and personal loss set against a spare, plaintive plucked-guitar score.
The story has a seething villain and climaxes in a fine, melodramatic fury.
But “Let It Go” is a thriller best-appreciated for its trio of tour de force performances — for Diane Lane and Kevin Costner’s understated Western American couple that’s so familiar and lived-in that their most powerful moments are wordless, and for Great Brit Lesley Manville’s furious, uncompromising North Dakota matriarch.
This intimate Western odyssey marks a return to form for writer-director Thomas Bezucha, years removed from his first break, the Montana-set “Big Eden” and from his break out “The Family Stone.” Adapting Larry Watson’s novel, he tells a story of family, loss, guilt and a seemingly irrational over-reach, a grandmother longing to raise and protect her grandson.
Because we’ve seen Margaret monopolize the child, dismissive of the boy’s mother even when her daughter-in-law (Kayli Carter), son (Ryan Bruce) and their newborn were living with them. But son James dies, Lorna remarries and little Jimmy (Otto and Bran Hornung) is suddenly removed from their lives, abruptly off to “live with his parents.”
Margaret wordlessly packs a bag, loads the station wagon and sits, ramrod straight, until George comes home and gets a clue. He says what we’re thinking.
“What the hell, Margaret?”
They’re off on a late-winter trek through eastern Montana and into western North Dakota, where the second husband’s Weboy clan holds sway. Asking questions about them tell retired sheriff George more than he wants to know.
“You let it be known you’re looking for a Weboy, they’ll find YOU.”
Finding Bill (Jeffrey Donovan of “Burn Notice”) and the ranch matriarch, Blanche (Manville, of “Maleficent” and “The Crown”) leads to tense, brittle conversational stand-offs — Margaret’s pasted-on smile not covering George’s I-know-what’s-coming glower.
Bezucha takes his time getting to that meeting, sharing a little of the Margaret/George backstory, filling in the sad blanks of their son’s death with flashbacks. The pre-Interstate vistas are filled with Patsy Cline and fundamentalists on the crackling AM radio on their ’58 Chevy Nomad wagon, and not-quite-bickering as George scolds Margaret for her doggedness and naivete.
Their stops along the way start with Margaret’s grinning, disarming chatter — “beating around the bush” as she promises to not beat-around-the-bush — and devolve into the old lawman’s blunt “bad cop” questioning.
They even stumble across a Native teen (Booboo Stewart), with hints of the horrors of the Bismarck “Indian School” he escaped.
But meeting the Weboys turns this mournful journey into what the movies long ago nicknamed “A Mexican Standoff.” The music changes from guitar to Thriller Strings and we wonder how we or Margaret or anyone, for that matter, could make the case for the kid without an eruption of violence.
Manville’s Blanche is all cruel, regal bluster, putting her “guests” on notice they’re on her turf. “Anyone knows me knows I can’t be insulted,” she drawls, but we know and George and Margaret know that she can.
Lane’s Margaret shows her mettle without having to proclaim it, but her abrupt way of turning off the sweet smile and the “beating around the bush” suggest she’s absorbed some of George’s wariness and impatience.
And Costner, the Western American Master, lets us see George’s submission to the will of “this woman I married by can’t figure,” and his age. The experience means the mind is willing, even if the body’s lost its fastball.
Some of the characters’ changes in mood and approach seem abrupt. Surely any of the leads would lay on the disarming honey just a little longer before flashing their respective talons. But they all have a hint of George’s sense of fate that’s in play.
Once the Blackledges undertook this quest, there was no pleasant way for it to play out.
The finale is over-the-top and melodramatic, Old West and Old Fashioned in its own way.
But “Let Him Go” is a real showcase for fine talent — veteran villain Donovan included — and a nicely-blended mix of sentiment, sadness and the violence that we know, as well as any character on the screen does, is coming.
MPA Rating: R for violence
Cast: Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Lesley Manville, Jeffrey Donovan, Kayli Carter, Will Brittain and Booboo Stewart.
Credits: Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, based on a Larry Watson novel. A Focus Features release
Running time: 1:54