By Leah Greenblatt
November 05, 2020 at 08:00 AM EST
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Credit: Kimberley French/Focus Features

Kevin Costner has always embodied a certain kind of movie stardom, as American as baseball. And at 65, the California native seems to have found a new niche as the king of the nouveau Western, winning a lead-actor Emmy for 2012's Hatfields & McCoys and starring for three seasons on the flinty drama series Yellowstone.

His steady, hard-squint presence anchors Let Him Go (in theaters Nov. 6), a film whose sometimes wild swings between sentiment and stark violence — it begins with the gauzy soft-focus of Nicholas Sparks, and ends in a hail of No Country for Old Men-style vengeance — might otherwise fly off altogether without its fine cast.

Costner stars alongside Diane Lane as George and Margaret Blackledge, long-married ranchers in midcentury rural Montana whose idealized only son is dead before the opening credits, his neck snapped in a horse-riding accident. Still in mourning when her widowed daughter-in-law Lorna (Godless' Kayli Carter) remarries a few years later, taking the couple's young grandson Jimmy with her, Margaret is horrified to witness Lorna's new husband, Donny Weboy (Will Brittain), viciously backhanding the both of them in public, as casually as a pat on the head.

So when Donny suddenly absconds with his bride and stepson in the night, she resolves to follow, and bring Jimmy back home where he belongs. She's going, she promises George, with or without him. (Reader, he'll come.) And the Weboys, it doesn't take them long to learn, are a well-known clan around the Dakota badlands, though hardly a beloved one. If this were all set a few decades forward and southward, you might be hearing the Deliverance banjos by now; there's certainly a screech when the Weboy matriarch Blanche (Phantom Thread's Lesley Manville) enters the scene.

A sneering honey badger in blond curls and bright lipstick, she makes it clear that she thinks Jimmy should stay right where he is; Margaret strenuously disagrees. That's where the movie, adapted from Larry Watson's 2013 novel of the same name, begins to lose some of its Sparks-ian filter and tilt into full-on thriller mode, writer-director Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone) pumping a flood of blood and adrenaline into the script.

Lane and Manville, both elegant, Oscar-nominated actresses, tend to get caught on the rougher edges of his screenplay, their characters — particularly Manville's purring villainess — left to instill what nuance they can in a story whose default setting often tips toward pulp. Costner wins, perhaps, merely for having his taciturn George, a former sheriff, say so little; when he does speak, you almost can't help but lean in.

But Lane (who also looks lovely, unsurprisingly, in Western wear) finds grace too in the quieter respite of the pair's romance, and in the more tender ends of Margaret's mama-bear ferocity. As an instrument of righteousness and retribution, Let Him Go can feel both familiar and at times shockingly brutal, especially in its final climactic moments. Still, there's blunt power in the execution, most of it concentrated in Bezucha's moody big-sky atmosphere, and in the seasoned professionals he's found to tell the tale. Grade: B

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