Let Him Go (2020), starring Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, is aptly described as a neo-western, but not chiefly because it is set in the early 1960’s instead of in the Old West of the 1880’s. Rather, while not negating the archetypical male hero of the West and having a rip-roaring shootout, the film brings to the fore two archetypical female characters and their roles in shaping men and society.  In some ways, Let Him Go should also be understood as a fascinating, almost mythical, feminist take on the Western (This review contains some plot points.)

Briefly, the story is that the son of George and Margaret Blackledge, played by Costner and Lane respectively, set out from Montana to bring back their little grandson Jimmy who had been taken by their widowed daughter-in-law and her new and abusive husband to his family homestead in North Dakota.  This sets the stage for the fireworks and intense interactions between two grandmothers in Oscar-worthy performances by Lane and Lesley Manville, who plays the antagonist, Blanche Weboy.

The film highlights the importance of motherhood, and the two women represent two distinct kinds of strong women.  Blanche, a widowed mother of three, controls men for her purposes, ultimately to their destruction.  She is like a demonic goddess who consumes her male devotees, perhaps castrates them like Cybele’s priests.  Her sons are truly Weboys and not real men.  In the end, her maternal instinct creates a family of social misfits that live away from society and are answerable only to her.

On the other hand, Margaret is a fierce but nurturing mother goddess that helps men become the kind of men they should be.  The scene where she holds her grandson to her bosom powerfully displays the maternal instinct.  She also seems to have a divine-like ability to help the dying pass peacefully.  At the same time the irresistible force of her deep maternal need can and does cause her to act irrationally and irresponsibly.  She dominates and takes over the role of mother from her daughter-in-law, Lorna, even while her son is still alive.  This leads Lorna to make a terrible marital choice just to escape from Margaret’s domineering character.  Also, her husband George, the classic strong silent Western male, knows that he cannot keep her from a dangerous and ethically dubious quest to take back her grandson and so goes with her.  Ultimately, he does what a man must do to protect his family.

The loss of a maternal influence is shown both by Peter Dragswolf, a young Indian, who was ripped from his mother and grandmother as an eight-year-old and taken to a school for Indians which tries to “wash the Indian” out of him. He ran away but was no longer able to communicate with his grandmother who spoke only their native language. Consequently, he lives alone without a true home. In addition, Lorna, who appears to be an orphan, is a noticeably weaker female character. In a turning point for Margaret, she confesses that she should have been a mother to Lorna and was not.

The ending of the film turns a certain kind of feminism and the traditional Western on their heads. The feminist heroines in Thelma and Louise end up committing suicide because they cannot be free in a male-dominated society. In Let Him Go the two mothers, Margaret and Lorna, drive back home with little Jimmy to nurture him and make him a man one day. In contrast to the classic Western ending of the unmarried male hero riding into the sunset, the women of Let Him Go drive away from the sunrise to return home. By being mothers to little Jimmy the two heroines will help build a stable home and ultimately society.

Let Him Go has tense and exciting scenes (the R rating is for the violence at the end), especially as the story develops. The acting is excellent and the cinematography beautiful. Above all, it shows how art can touch deeply our human psyche and instinctual desires.  Watch it and discuss it with your friends.

 

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