Don't Let Go is a supernatural mystery that hinges on the performances
Let it be known that if you add time travel to anything, I will likely be very into it. Even the worst movies that invoke time tomfoolery (timefoolery?) get a bit of a pass from me. There’s just something about the never-ending list of ways to tweak the space-time continuum that makes for the most delicious food for thought. Add to that the limitless permutations of “the rules” and the value for these types of films skyrockets, giving the viewer hours of post-viewing material to chew on. If I step off the path while in the past, will I affect the future? If I travel to the future, will future-me remember my trip as it happens? Is there one timeline or multiple? Does every waking decision result in a splintering of the universe to cater to every possible decision that could be made? There are many questions to ask...but who has the time?
It’s fun stuff no matter how you slice it, but oftentimes a film that uses timefoolery to tell its story gets bogged down in the how/why of the time mechanics. Don’t Let Go (originally titled Relive) doesn’t waste a second explaining why time itself is being bent, nor does it waste energy holding the audience’s hand as said mechanics grow increasingly complicated. At times it borders on confusing, but this may have been overthinking on my part. Once I realized that the bonkers sci-fi throughline of Don’t Let Go serves solely as a device through which to exhibit some fantastic performances, it all became quite simple.
David Oyelowo plays Jack Radcliff, a bachelor detective who often finds himself caring for his niece when her troubled parents drop the ball. He doesn’t mind, however, as his niece Ashley (Storm Reid) is a radiant, well-adjusted child in spite of her difficult circumstances. It takes a village, and Uncle Jack is happy to do more than his part. Don’t Let Go uses remarkably little time to set up the relationship between Jack and Ashley, and it’s amazing what chemistry is produced between them in such a small window. The love between them is palpable, and the dynamics of their family are set up with a respectable amount of “show, don’t tell” exposition.
Before you can saw “awwww” however, tragedy strikes. Ashley and her parents are violently killed by a mystery assailant and Jack, understandably, takes this turn of events poorly. He seems to be at a total loss, until one day he receives a call from Ashley’s phone. One the other end...is Ashley.
And for her, it’s two weeks ago.
Don’t worry, none of this is a spoiler. These events transpire pretty quickly in order to get the actual story running. With Jack able to communicate with a version Ashley that hasn’t yet been killed, it’s his hope that he can, at the very least, guide her away from tragedy. And if the two are clever enough, maybe they can figure out who did it (or rather who is going to do it).
Don’t Let Go is a surprisingly bleak film, that doesn’t shy away from being cruel to its characters. The violence is stark and shocking — more so than you’d typically expect from what appears on its surface to be a middle of the road thriller — and the characters are so efficiently realized that the emotional resonance of their suffering is doubly felt. Smartly, writer/director Jacob Estes parlays this into a level of sustained tension that persists for the bulk of the runtime. That isn’t to say that the pacing is perfect. In bouncing back and forth from multiple timelines, both of which shift as elements of past events are altered, some of the energy is lost. In these moments we typically rely on directorial flair to keep things lively, but there’s little of that to be found here. Estes’ shot choices are exceptional, and the editing is slick, but the imagery often feels flat. It’s a shame because this does feel like a film that is interested in having a distinct style, it just doesn’t come through.
No matter. The main reasons this works are the performances and the degree to which the audience is trusted to keep up and not ask questions. And if I’m being honest, I don’t really have any. The rules are consistent, if not explicit, and that’s all that counts in this sort of thing.
I’m convinced that Oyelowo is capable of anything. He’s ageless, chameleonic, and purely engaging in any setting. Storm Reid, if the film gods are kinder to her than other young ladies, has a tremendous career in front of her. The supporting cast, too, including Alfred Molina, Byron Mann, Mykelti Williamson, Shinelle Azoroh, and Brian Tyree Henry, all make big moves with small strokes, taking side characters and making them real people.
Your mileage may vary, depending on how much a supernatural murder mystery floats your boat, but there’s no denying that the pieces of Don’t Let Go are stellar even if the whole is somewhat less so.
Don’t Let Go opens in theaters today.