‘Let Him Go’: the maternal instinct - caring light or consuming flame?

New York Times best-selling author and relationships expert R.H. Sin may have meant well when he wrote: “Some women fear the fire. Some women simply become it.” Thomas Bezucha’s film "Let Him Go" warns of the dangers when women take their power to shape destinies, too literally; women don’t need to become anything if they already are, fully, themselves.

Bezucha’s movie isn’t, as many have misread it, a simplistic rescue-revenge tale of a noble family, the Blackledges, confronting — and defeating — a wicked one, the Weboys. In fact, Bezucha’s plot and characters, drawing on Larry Watson’s eponymous novel, are profound. 

Far from being another thriller about a hard, and often heartless, West, Bezucha’s film is a slow-burn drama about three women who, alive to the power of their maternal instinct, wield it differently; some poorly, others wisely. He asks, can women wield it better still? As wives, as mothers? He examines the maternal instinct as a force that can create, nurture, defend, but just as easily stifle, twist, consume. And he does this by portraying the fate of a little boy, Jimmy, hanging in the balance between three women.



All three women, Jimmy’s mother Lorna (Kayli Carter), Margaret Blackledge (Diane Lane) the mother of Lorna’s dead husband James and Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville), the mother of Lorna’s second husband Donnie, represent flawed extremes, hinting at a middle ground that’s less extreme, less flawed.

Lorna, at the weakest end of the spectrum, is passive, but self-aware and courageous in her own way. Relieved to leave one matriarch’s incriminating shadow (Margaret), she musters enough courage to flee the abusive other (Blanche). Woken from a deep sleep by her deliverer, father-in-law George Blackledge (Kevin Costner), she could just as easily, whether from spite or fear, have told him to simply leave. She doesn’t. And George trusts her courage and agency enough to risk his life.

Courageous Margaret and cowardly Blanche would both rather make a victim than become one like Lorna, even if neither has Lorna’s self-awareness. Lorna learns from both: awareness without action can be as destructive as action without awareness. Blanche quickly moves to tighten her matriarchal grip on Jimmy, and Margaret as quickly to tighten hers, but neither is alive to how grievous their grips are.

Bezucha uses three different women to tell his story, but they might as well represent a continuum, a journey that the same woman traverses. When Margaret nears the mirror to finesse her lipstick, you see three images of her, one real, two reflected, just as the image of a man (George) stains the mirror’s edge. Bezucha’s story is about men and women, his sermon is about women.

What of the three men, American Indian youngster Peter (Booboo Stewart), Lorna’s new husband Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) and George?

Peter, at the weakest end, is passive, self-aware if not yet courageous. 

Donnie, tutored to bully, lacks courage and self-awareness, but carries a spark of both: he storms out after assaulting George, annoyed at himself for not standing up to Blanche’s schooled sadism. Sure, he becomes as cruel as she wants him to, but at least he first balks.

George is both self-aware and courageous, but held back by realism.

Wild card, Jimmy, is a boy rather than a man: a mere possibility. Jimmy’s steps to manhood will be shaped first and, perhaps lastingly, by two women: Lorna and  Margaret. Will he grow to be his own man? Or bear shades of Peter or Donnie or George?

Watson’s “Let him go” rather than “Let her go” argues that both men and women have freedom (and responsibility) in shaping destinies, but women, as mothers, can uniquely shape boys to be the kind of men they want: as sons, as future husbands, future fathers, even grandfathers. Will they be a force for good? Or condemn themselves and their daughters to a cycle of self-destruction, alongside insecure and cowardly men?

For all his goodness, George is a reminder: wicked fathers abound. When Margaret snootily recalls his late Bible-thumping father, he clarifies, “Wasn’t just Bibles he thumped.” That says two things. First, if George turned out the way he did — kind, brave and respectful — his mother probably had more than a little to do with it. Second, he chose not to ape his abusive father. George is a rebuttal to men who plead to be victims of poor upbringing or circumstance, men who blame wives, whiskey or wicked mothers to excuse their recklessness, rage or rampage. 

Margaret embraces little Jimmy like she’s about to absorb him into herself. She worships the sound of him, the smell of him, the look of him, the touch of his skin. But her “You’ll come visit real soon” is more of a command than a request.

Warm as it is, Margaret’s love enslaves more than it empowers because her unilateralism runs deep.  

She informs George that she’s setting out for Jimmy. She’s not coming back “without him”; even George’s future doesn’t matter, if it’s one without Jimmy. She’s relieved that George accompanies, but it’s desirable, not essential. When she pouts over Jimmy’s absence, she’s almost blaming George, not sharing anguish. When George wonders why she didn’t immediately disclose Donnie’s abusiveness, she arches her eyebrows as if to say: what difference would that have made?! Her disrespect bleeds distrust, as she manipulatively thrusts intimacy on him as a “reward”, and withdraws it as “retribution”.

George finds fulfilment and acceptance in compliance. When she gives up her quest for Jimmy, he renews it, like indulging a perpetual child. Yet Margaret shuns his repeated warning: her love sometimes saves, but sometimes suffocates, starves, kills. His salvific fire at the Weboys’ on her behalf, might well have consumed Lorna and Jimmy.

James’s premature death robs Margaret and George of their goodbyes, yet George finds solace in standing awhile at his gravestone. Margaret fumes in the car, clutching a phantom son, in her grandson, “I don’t need reminding. I know what I’ve lost.” George says, “Sometimes that’s all life is, Margaret; the list of what we’ve lost.” Lorna recoils at Donnie’s first kiss; she too hasn’t mourned James yet.  

Two people disappear into the distance in Margaret’s rear-view mirror. First, Jimmy, as she reluctantly leaves him with Lorna and Donnie. Finally, Peter, as she, less reluctantly, leaves him to himself. She lets go of only one. Her impulse with Peter too is to clutch, but she says wholeheartedly, “Thank you. You should go”, like she means it: the farewell she didn’t get to say to her son, James.

Bezucha’s point? Letting go isn’t “losing” if it’s accepted as a part of loving, as much as ageing and dying is a part of living. Letting go is a kind of generous giving back of what we’ve been generously given. The brittle (and broken) is born of not letting go of each stage, gracefully. It reflects ingratitude; reliving deprivation, even amid abundance. Abundance, if it ever existed, seems stuck in the past: Margaret’s whispers to the dead are about memories. 

Margaret cares. She responds to needs that haven't yet been noticed, let alone expressed. Spotting bare windows in Lorna’s home she offers, “I’ll sew you some curtains.” Setting out for Jimmy, she lovingly bakes a cake. But is she protecting her grandson, or still hunting for the perfect man that she didn't quite find in her now-aging husband or her now-dead son? Is the perfect man merely the utterly pliant one? For all her triumphs, is she only just discovering the fine line between being protective and possessive? 

Blanche boasts of braving storms (diseases, deaths, desertions), “I stayed!” Like Margaret, she sees herself as a survivor, everyone else, a victim. She tells Margaret, “Your son’s dead. It’s understandable you forget. We’re never really done raising them. Teaching them the right way. Why I had to bring my boy home, where I can keep an eye on him.” Blanche’s distrust of her son mirrors Margaret’s distrust of her husband; disrespect, flowing from narcissism. 

With a not-too-startling lack of awareness, Blanche calls Margaret a nag, “ It’s no wonder Lorna don’t want to go with you…Big bull-hen! Thinking you know what’s best for everybody.” Then mocking George, “Pecking you to death, no doubt.”

In a nag, the secure woman spies difference, the insecure woman, sameness. Blanche sees a tamer version of herself in Margaret, but Margaret takes a while to see a perverted caricature of herself in Blanche.

Margaret may be the one who’s spent a lifetime “breaking” horses, but both women are accustomed to “breaking” the human colts and stallions (and mares) in their families, curbing their freedom, making them a little less than themselves. Just differently. Barbarous, Blanche crushes their spirit, extracts obedience through brute force, or threat of it. Milder, Margaret softens them up to a point where riding — her in the saddle, of course — is not just welcomed, but second nature. Neither needs a harness or halter to get their mounts to gallop, let alone trot. 

That Peter too was “broken” by officers who tried to “kill the Indian inside” forces Margaret to silently, secretly confront her destructive dominance. Cradling a mutilated George in their forlorn motel room, her “What have I done to you?!” mourns the horror of not only what she’s just done, but what she’s been doing all along: bending other wills to her own, no matter the cost.

Lorna wonders why Margaret wasn’t more of a mother than a mother-in-law to her.  Margaret laments, “I should’ve been….much more to you.” Their conciliatory embrace (it’s Lorna who reaches out) near the diner indicts women who treat daughters-in-law as intruders rather than insiders, schooling their sons to do the same, women who scorn vulnerable women, forgetting how they too were once that: vulnerable women.

Aghast, Margaret gets a taste of the self-loathing that Blanche imparts, as Bill Weboy toys with her about “advice” he’d have given his nephew if only he’d been asked, “Marry yourself a widow Donnie. You’ll be getting yourself a grateful woman.” 

Bezucha breezes over backstories: Why did Lorna remarry hurriedly? Why didn’t the Blackledges do due diligence before wedding her to the Weboys? Why are the Weboys as twisted? After all, we see odd or demented families every fortnight. In the closing scene, Blanche’s thundering “Why!?” stays rhetorical, unanswered. Bezucha is more interested in how women and men are, the way they are. He’s saying: If you stay afraid of loss, you forget that what you cling to was never yours in the first place. Clinging isn’t caring. You can never truly possess what you cling to. You truly own only what you’re prepared to let go. 

Bezucha’s film isn’t quite Kipling's seductive, but too fanciful, theory about the female of the species being deadlier than the male. It’s more like Proverbs 14:1, "A wise woman builds her house, while a foolish woman tears hers down, with her own hands." For no house stays built if the woman is teaching her men (brothers, husbands, fathers, sons, grandsons) that love is about control, about taking more than giving. Or worse, that giving is, ultimately, giving up rather than giving back.


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