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Review: A determined Diane Lane and a campy Lesley Manville elevate ‘Let Him Go’

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in the movie "Let Him Go."
(Kimberley French / Focus Features)

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Thomas Bezucha’s adaptation of Larry Watson’s 2013 novel, “Let Him Go,” is at once spare and syrupy. Set in 1951, it’s a western family noir, a “real blood feud,” as one of the characters puts it, dampening the North Dakota soil upon which this war is fought.

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner star as Margaret and George Blackledge, a grieving Montana couple. A few short scenes set up their dilemma: George singing to their baby grandson Jimmy with their son and daughter-in-law. Then, a riderless horse; a body by the creek. Black clothing for a funeral, followed by an uncomfortable wedding. Their grandson’s new stepfather, Donny (Will Brittain), publicly backhanding the boy’s mother, Lorna (Kayli Carter). A hastily vacated apartment.

That’s all we need to know to understand the quest on which Margaret sets, determined to go with or without her husband, to find Jimmy and bring him back. George joins her, of course.

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In North Dakota, the Blackledges search for their grandson and his new stepfamily, the Weboys, following a trail of clues and small-town gossip that grows more and more ominous. The sunny yet steely Margaret leads with a forceful kindness, asserting “We’re family” as a means of accessing her grandson. But at the end of a long rural road, she finds a group of people to whom she’d never want to be kin.

The matriarch is Blanche Weboy, an apt moniker for English actress Lesley Manville’s performance, which skews toward Blanche DuBois-style operatics. Chain-smoking, sporting a bleached blond hairdo and Midwestern (?) accent, Manville is having some fun as the ultimate scary mommy, hardened by the punishing lifestyle of mid-20th century Great Plains living. She rules her gang of violent, poorly mannered boys with an iron fist, and she has no intention of giving up her newest family member, Jimmy.

Lesley Manville in the movie "Let Him Go."
(Kimberley French / Focus Features)

The Blackledges’ journey takes them down a path to a particularly virulent kind of evil, entrenched, trained and beaten into men with fear and hatred. Standing in opposition to the toxic Blanche is the equally determined Margaret. She’s the type of woman who whispers kind words into the ear of a beloved horse about to be put down, who sees everyone as family, though she’s no pushover. Although they are brutalized by the Weboys’ intimidation tactics, the Blackledges won’t stand down. One wonders what sacrifices are required of a soul to meet such evil with equal force, even if it is in the service of good.

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As Bill, Blanche’s brother-in-law, Jeffrey Donovan brings his signature brand of grinning menace to the role. And the cast is rounded out with a new generation of promising performers in Brittain, the excellent Carter, and Booboo Stewart as Peter, a young Native American man who the Blackledges encounter. His personal story of being taken as a child to an abusive “Indian school” is part history lesson, part a look into Jimmy’s potential future should he stay with the sadistic Weboys.

Bezucha’s style is unshowy, using the beauty of the natural landscape. A score by Michael Giacchino lends the melodrama, while Manville, unleashed, shows a new, campier side. In many ways, it feels like the midcentury pulp thrillers it emulates: well-plotted and grisly, but almost ephemeral. It is Lane’s performance that lingers, one that dares to be uniquely hopeful about the future, and letting the old ways die.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

'Let Him Go'

Rated: R, for violence

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

Playing: Starts Nov. 6 in general release where theaters are open

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