From writer-director Thomas Bezucha comes Let Him Go, an intense character-based thriller about the bonds of family, the power of love and the necessity of sacrifice, set in the American West.
Following the tragic loss of their son, retired sheriff George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and his wife Margaret ( Diane Lane) leave their Montana ranch to rescue their young grandson from the clutches of a dangerous family in the Dakotas, headed by matriarch Blanche Weboy. When they discover the Weboys have no intention of letting the child go, George and Margaret are left with no choice but to fight for their family.
Bezucha, already a fan of acclaimed author Larry Watson’s work, found himself captivated by the slow-burn tale in the unforgettable 2013 novel Let Him Go , and the filmmaker, whose previous credits include 2011’s Monte Carlo, 2005’s The Family Stone and the 2000 indie Big Eden, knew immediately he wanted to adapt the book for the screen.
“What resonated for me about Let Him Go was it had a very propulsive narrative about retrieving this child,” Bezucha says. “It’s about family, which always appeals to me. But then this opportunity to paint a portrait of a marriage between Margaret and George, to chart their journey together through grief as they try to reunite their family also really spoke to me. As scary and horrible and tragic and violent as the movie is, there is this real authentic, loving connection between this long-married couple.”
Translating the story for the screen proved demanding.
The story is set under the wide, open skies of the West, an expansive landscape of great stillness and silences. The characters choose their words carefully, revealing little—and with so much remaining unspoken, what is uttered takes on great weight.
“They don’t talk a lot, and so when they speak, you have to be careful with what they say,” Bezucha says. “It’s a very precise book. That was the challenge of the writing.”
Bezucha set the story in the early 1960s rather than 1951 as Watson had.
“1963 resonated for me because it felt like a crossroads for American culture in the 20th century,” he says. “It’s Camelot, and it’s Kennedy. There was a before, and there was an after, the fall from grace or innocence that we collectively experienced. I wanted Lorna and Donnie to get married in a courthouse that had a portrait of Kennedy because you knew that this is going to have a sad ending.”
Let Him Go found its footing quickly.
Bezucha and producer Mazur had worked together on bringing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to the screen. Looking to repeat the collaboration, Mazur asked Bezucha if there were other projects on which they might partner. He shared his passion for Watson’s novel and explained his vision for a film based on the powerful story.
“One of the things that really attracted me to this story when Tom brought it to me was the sense that it was genre-busting,” Mazur says. “Here was a thriller, but it was so much more than that. It was a story of a marriage. It has some humor in it. I think what was so interesting for me was the idea of a really scary thriller with tremendous humanity. Thrillers are often just zoom-through, by-the-numbers terrifying, but this has an incredible love story and a sense of people who care about each other in it as well.”
Adds Bezucha: “It’s the kind of movie I grew up with in the ‘70s and the ‘80s—Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, these relationship movies about families and couples. The characters of George and Margaret, you can’t really separate from each other. They’ve been married that long. I think Margaret has turned somewhat away from her husband into her own grief. George is trying to reconnect with her and indulges this [trip]. I don’t think that George believes that Margaret is going to get their grandson back. He just wants to give Margaret an opportunity to say goodbye to the grandson so that she can be at peace with the loss. This journey, it brings them back together.”
After one meeting with Focus Features, Let Him Go was officially on its way to the screen with the filmmakers focused on assembling a formidable ensemble cast led by two landmark talents in the lead roles: Diane Lane and Kevin Costner.
As much as Let Him Go is a thriller about a missing boy and a drama about a husband and wife navigating tragedy and tumult, it’s also very much a story about mothers and sons. Margaret’s life is sent off course when she loses her son James; Lorna’s second marriage leaves her terrified for her Jimmy’s future; and Donnie’s mother, Blanche, when she finally takes center stage, is a nightmare matriarch, possessive and ruthlessly controlling of her own sons—and of her new grandson by marriage.
A Different Kind Of Western
A unique marriage of slow-burn thriller and deeply rooted family drama, Let Him Go borrows the best elements from the Western genre to tell a story that feels both timeless and surprisingly contemporary. It’s a tale about tragedy and loss but also about redemption and deliverance.
“It’s a Western thriller in an old-school John Wayne way,” offers filmmaker Bezucha. “It has a Cormac McCarthy flintiness to it. It’s a genre thriller, but ultimately, it’s a story about family. It explores some emotional terrain that I hope resonates with people. It explores the limits of family and love and what you’ll fight for. What is the right thing or the wrong thing to do in this situation? It was incredibly compelling to me, that idea—George’s choices, Margaret’s choices, Blanche’s choices. It’s about the human experience.”
“This is a throwback film, it really is,” adds Bill Weboy actor Donovan. “It’s a Western drama. This script is so beautiful and haunting. You feel like you’re in another world, a world that is no longer around but is something that’s still tangible and dangerous.”
Once Margaret and George place themselves in danger, confronting the Weboys, their lives are never the same. The clan exacts a terrible price from the couple for their temerity in coming to reclaim their grandchild, which, in turn, prompts George to resolve to take back the little boy, at any cost—largely because he realizes that Margaret, this woman he loves so deeply, can never again feel whole without Jimmy in her life.
But that choice has grave consequences. For everything Margaret might gain in being reunited with her grandson, the price she must pay is incalculable. Lane believes there’s a lesson in that.
“I would hope that people wind up having a deeper appreciation for the love that they feel for the people that are in their lives,” she says. “This is a cautionary tale about pushing your agenda and forcing your will. Perhaps it might succeed, but maybe at the loss of something that you could not have calculated.”
Concludes Costner: “This is a rough tough movie.”
Lane initially was intrigued by the title of the screenplay when it arrived to her. “I thought it was inspiring and curious because it’s an instruction and you don’t hear titles that are instructive very often,” Lane says. “So, the first time I read the script, I was looking to see who needed to let whom go because there were many different points of view in the realm of loss and people resisting that loss. ‘Let him go’ could be said to many characters in the story yet nobody spoke the line in the film, which I loved also. It allows the audience to have multiple perspectives on who should be letting who go.”
The fact that Bezucha had brought Margaret to the page with so much complexity appealed to the veteran performer, who felt that the role would be suitably challenging. “Margaret is facing a wall of grief that’s so large she can’t climb it,” Lane says. “She’s trying to get around it, and not acknowledging its impasse for her. I found that very interesting as a coping mechanism, denial and avoidance—I mean, if you start crying, you might cry forever. That’s what happens with people that are unable to get to that point of feeling their pain. She’s got that much pain. I found that to be a very tender spot to start with a character.”
She was also drawn to Margaret and George’s rapport, which has been deepened immeasurably over their years together. “Their dynamic as a married couple I found to be very endearing,” Lane says. “Listen, in a 30-year marriage, it’s like traveling through different universes. You grow and you morph and you change and then you also don’t in some ways. Your weaknesses are revealed in a long-term relationship. You can’t hide them, and you give up trying after a while. But their relationship changed in the way that they kind of regress into their weakest version of themselves.”
Realizing they would need an actor of weight and gravitas to play George Blackledge opposite Lane’s Margaret, the filmmakers set their sights on Kevin Costner. Over the course of a singular career, the Academy Award® winning actor and filmmaker has demonstrated time and again his unique facility with wary, laconic heroes—most recently on the television series Yellowstone. For producer Mazur, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as George: “Kevin Costner represents the best of Americana, and he has a Western feel to him. He loves the West. He lives that pretty actively in his own psyche, and I think it comes through—that chiseled face, that jawline and those incredible blue eyes, that directness. There’s a real direct quality about him, a knowing quality about him that felt very much like George.”
Bezucha flew to Costner’s Los Angeles home to discuss the role with him. “He was so generous about the script,” he says. “The first question he asked me about George was, ‘Does he wear a hat?’ Kevin is so associated with these iconic western roles, and we wanted to differentiate George from that pack. I had always seen George as a bit of a Spencer Tracy, Atticus Finch character. He is this moral ballast of the story. What makes a hero for me, it’s always somebody who’s decent when nobody’s looking.”
Costner was so impressed with Bezucha and his screenplay that he agreed to star in LET HIM GO: “I’ve worked on about two or three scripts in my life where we didn’t really change a word. There’s been other ones where we worked sometimes right up to the night, and I don’t like doing that. But this was one that came in the vein of Bull Durham and Dances with Wolves and Silverado, movies that were crafted really well. The word was there.”
He was also pleased to reunite with Lane—they previously worked together on both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, playing Kansas couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, adoptive parents of Superman. “The piece of the puzzle that was so inviting to me was Diane already in it,” Costner says. “I always want to work with people under the right circumstances, and I thought this gave us a chance to be in a really good movie. So, Diane was the appeal, and Tom’s steady hand with me really was the thing that helped me to sign.”
Lane was equally delighted to work with Costner to shape George and Margaret’s relationship on screen. “Kevin brings a level of integrity to every role,” Lane says. “We want him to be a hero. He seems to be able to make sense of things wherever he is and whatever character he plays. He brings a clarity to what’s going on. He certainly does with George. Kevin saw what was beautiful about this story, the simplicity and the truth of it, and it struck a chord with him.”
From the start, casting director Avy Kaufman felt that Lesley Manville, an accomplished veteran of the British stage, in the role of matriarch Blanche Weboy who exerts a powerful hold on her children—in Gladstone, her word is law.
Offers Manville: “When I read it, it was just so amazing—a gripping thriller, apart from anything else. But there are Western elements in it. And then it goes into this dark, Gothic place with the Weboy family. I loved the language in it. I loved the language of Blanche. I just love the way she talks. You could equate it to an East End of London gangland momma with her slightly crooked family. I was flattered that Tom and Paula thought that a British actress could do this very extreme, eccentric, pretty crazy Midwest momma with a gun.”
Manville says tapping into universal truths about motherhood helped her find a way into the threatening character. “Mothers come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one essential ingredient, which is their connection to their own kids,” she says. “Nothing will come between her and her boys. To her, that mother-son bond is sacred and finite. Letting go isn’t really on her agenda. It is the world according to Blanche. She sits at the head of her table, and the boys seem to have a respect for that behavior.”