Let Him Go has benefited to an unusual degree from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic: it's a film that almost certainly would have vanished without a ripple in any other circumstances other than being one of the handful of movies to get a large-sized theatrical release in the United States in the last four months of the year, while also having the good fortune to exactly target the only kind of viewers still going to theaters (adults without children in the middle of the country). For this, it became the first film released after Tenet to scramble its way above a $4 million weekend at the U.S. box office (and, if I were a betting man, I would suggest it will probably be the last time we see such a lofty number in 2020, now that Freaky missed the mark), which probably isn't all that much more than it would have made in a normal year, but given the benighted times in which it emerged, that's enough to make it one of the vanishingly few examples of a movie that struck any kind of chord with audiences in the second half of the calendar year.

I'm not quite sure I get why that would be the case, but it's a fine enough slice of methodical storytelling for patient, undemanding audiences who don't get why '70s films ever had to stop. The easiest way to think of it is as a grandparent-centered, Western version of Taken operating at one-tenth speed: Margaret Blackledge (Diane Lane) is concerned that her little grandson Jimmy (Bram & Otto Hornung) is at risk of being abused after her son's widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) marries - reluctantly, and obviously unhappily - Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), hot-tempered son of the violent Weboy clan. So she inveighs upon her taciturn husband, ex-sheriff George (Kevin Costner), to track the elusive Weboys to their home base, where they butt heads with the magnificently awful Weboy matriarch, Blanche (Lesley Manville). The nature of this head-butting starts off entirely verbal, but it fairly quickly turns violent, and once it has gone violent, it goes all the way violent.

A revenge thriller, then, but the tricky thing about Let Him Go, not to mention the frustrating thing, is that it covers a whole lot of generic and tonal ground over the course of its 113 minutes. By my reckoning, this turns into basically a whole new film twice in the middle, and I certainly preferred the film it started as to the films it becomes. Because that first film is really quite a commandingly lovely thing. The movie starts in Montana somewhere vaguely in the 1960s - enough into the decade that the early 1950s can be described as being somewhat in the distant past, at least - and while neither "Montana" nor "the 1960s" are a thing that the movie really beats you over the head with, one of the film's greatest strengths lies in evoking a sense of place and time all around the edges of the movie. This is a film about a specific set of cultural mores, bound regionally and by class, and this emerges entirely through behavior - Margaret's tactical use of homemade baked goods as both a negotiation strategy and a show of military strength is the most obvious and best example of this, but everything about the whole movie is suffused with the unhurried pace and small-l libertarianism of the Great Plains in a period of what we can definitely call "comfort" but might be slightly embarrassed to call "prosperity". Director Thomas Bezucha and cinematographer Guy Godfree capture all of this with  slightly overcast look that gives the film what I'd call a sense of "warm greys" - a dumb paradox, sure, but there's something dusty but comfortable about the look of the film that I can't sum up any other way. Add in Michael Giacchino's subdued score, pulling gently at a slight idea of Western grandeur but remaining small and character-oriented, and there's something very "melancholy Americana dragging under its own mythic weight" about the whole thing.

This mood is perfectly matched by Lane and Costner, whose performances are easily the best reason to see the film, and I say that as someone who generally considers it a good job when I find Lane to be merely tolerable. They're both comfortably playing up their characters' increasing age, setting the rhythm of scenes through their purposefully stiff performances, and Costner in particular has instant gravitas in the thick gravelly rumble that his voice has turned into over the last few years, insisting on turning the whole movie not just into a study of the kind of people who would choose to live in rural Montana as a way of claiming a slow pace of life, but specifically into how that slow pace of life turns into granite with the coming of one's senior years.

The film's pervasive evocation of this laconic way of moving and being is, ultimately, mostly just there to serve as a contrast with where it ends up going, but I honestly think it's where the film hits its peak. Bezucha, who also adapted the screenplay from Larry Watson's 2013 novel, does not have a deft hand for tone, and nothing in his career up to this point even slightly points us towards "violent thriller" as a likely target for his talent. As a result, the film's pivots into new territory generally make it feel a bit less authentic, and less sure of what the hell it's doing. The first such pivot, to be fair, would be a tall order for any director to make sense of, given that it is borne on the wings of Manville's incredible performance, and I am drawing on every literal and figurative meaning of "incredible". She plays Blanche Weboy as a self-satisfied gargoyle, loudly chomping her way through dialogue that probably isn't actually melodramatically overripe if you were to just read it, but by the time she's done it feels like the most ludicrous Southern-fried camp imaginable; she carries herself like a vulture, always leering down hungrily even she has to look up at the person she's preparing to attack. I am in awe of what she's up to - it is a fearless, entirely coherent performance made up of the wildest, most inexplicable individual pieces - even as I have no idea what the hell it's doing in Let Him Go, or how we're meant to register her and Lane as members of the same species, let alone competing grandmothers to the same little boy.

The second pivot, the point where brutal violence enters the movie (literally in the middle of a scene), at least feels like it's refocusing; it's a much, much different film than it started out as, and the slow, methodical approach that Bezucha and Godfree keep using certainly doesn't work as fluidly here as it did in the first part, and Giacchino is the only person on either side of the camera who seems interested in letting the audience feel the crushing weight of the violence. But at least I understand what the film is doing again, after the middle stretch has been knocked off its axis so much by Manville's whirlwind of a performance. And it's not even doing it horribly, quickly figuring out a way to anchor this part of the movie in Lane and Costner's performances once again. It's all very strange, and I wish the film had a wilder aesthetic to match how far out there its plot swerves, or at least that the film had made an effort to let us know in the first act that the third act was even a remote possibility. It's not boring, though, and for a movie that starts as solemn, talky chamber drama about a sad family dealing with grief, "not boring" isn't half bad.

For more thoughts the film, check out Carrie & Rob's interview with director Thomas Bezucha!