Through the first half of Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go, violence is kept to a minimum. George and Margaret Blackledge (played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) do their best to avoid any real trouble as they chase their widowed daughter-in-law and their infant grandson across stateliness and negotiate with their new, removed in-laws, the dangerous Weboy family. That all changes, however, with a sudden eruption that plays out in a hotel room.
While waiting for their grandson and his mother to escape to them in the night, George and Margaret instead find themselves on the receiving end of a surprise attack led by the Weboy matriarch, Blanche (Lesley Manville). The upper-hand trades back-and-forth, but the ending finds George lose a few fingers courtesy of a hatchet. It’s a disturbing moment that sticks with the audience – and the director credits one of the best Stephen King adaptations for inspiration: Rob Reiner’s Misery.
Without being gratuitous, Let Him Go allows the audience to experience the shock of actually seeing the hatchet slice through Kevin Costner’s digits, and when I had the opportunity to interview Thomas Bezucha over the phone last week I felt compelled to ask about the moment. Reflecting on his approach, the filmmaker specifically referenced what is the most iconic moment in Misery: the hobbling. Said Bezucha,
The scene I kept thinking about was the hobbling in Misery, and went back and looked at exactly how they did that. And you actually do see the impact of the sledgehammer and ankle. My approach was I was not into doing a Tarantino bloodbath, but I felt like the sort of spikes of violence in this, you had to show the consequence.
For those who aren’t familiar with the 1990 film, Misery centers on an author (James Caan) who is kept hostage by a lunatic fan (Kathy Bates) following a horrific car crash in the Rocky Mountains, and audiences learn midway through the movie that she doesn’t have a high tolerance for escape attempts. Hoping to discourage and hinder any future similar efforts, she goes to work with a hunk of wood and a sledgehammer – which you can watch in the clip below:
You’ll note that Rob Reiner chooses not to show the audience Annie Wilkes’ swing at Paul Sheldon’s right ankle, instead cutting from a close-up to a reaction shot, but do you really need to see it after the first? The answer is a firm no, as watching that left foot go totally floppy is an image that sticks with you as you watch the rest of the movie and forever changes your perception of the antagonist. There is also notably zero gore or blood – though, funny enough, that itself is a change from Stephen King’s novel, which sees Annie wielding a wood axe instead of a sledgehammer.
Watching the scene in question from Let Him Go, you can clearly see the impact (sorry) that Misery had on the way it was shot. There aren’t spurts of blood that shoot out across characters’ faces. There is simply a brief beat that allows the audience to register that George’s fingers are on one side of the axe blade, and that his hand is on the other.
Thomas Bezucha doesn’t have the moment overstay its welcome – it’s a neo-western, not a horror movie – but you fully understand the terrible thing that has happened instead of it being hidden. It simply has an effect on the way that you view the story and the characters from that point forward, which is the intention. Said the writer/director,
And so without lingering, it's just the senseless wastefulness of the violence that was interesting to me. And I felt like you kind of had to be honest about showing it without making it pornographic or, you know, I was definitely going less blood all the time.
All the same, Let Him Go did still get an R-rating from the MPAA for “violence,” but given the actual restraint shown by the movie it can practically wear that as a badge of honor. That rating is far more about the visceral impact that the violence has than graphic content, and that makes it feel like a hat-tip to a well-shot film. Following its theatrical release last fall, Let Him Go is now available to purchase on all major digital platforms. And for those of you who are into physical media collection, the movie will be on Blu-ray and DVD February 2.