Don’t Let Go—a goofy, formula-driven murder mystery that leans almost exclusively on its time travel twist—at the very least seems to have involved a captivating elevator pitch, something along the lines of: “Jack (David Oyelowo), a homicide detective, is grief-stricken when he finds out that his mentally ill brother (Brian Tyree Henry) killed his daughter Ashley (Storm Reid) before turning the gun on himself. Two weeks after the tragedy, Jack’s phone rings. The caller ID reads: Ashley.”
Is Ashley a ghost? An imposter? The answer is equally captivating and banal: She’s calling from the past, as Ashley and Jack’s phones can magically connect—though they’re two weeks apart. Such a premise could open up a bevy of clever and twisted narrative possibilities, but writer/director Jacob Estes settles on the most generic thriller tropes at every turn. After the horrific murder-suicide, Jack’s tortured by the guilt that he could have done more to help his brother with his illness, that maybe being more involved with Ashley’s life could have cultivated a different result. How refreshing would it be if Jack kept trying to find ways of changing Ashley’s family dynamic over the time-traveling phone, only to have it end in bloodshed over and over again? A quantum jumping psychological thriller about how we can’t be in control of others’ behavior no matter how hard we try? Now that’s at least interesting. Blumhouse released Don’t Let Go, and they’re certainly not averse to bold takes that explore the psychological aspects of a straight genre exercise. Get Out, The Gift and Creep are just the first that come to mind.
In this case, the brother’s mental illness is used as a red herring to cover up the real crime: a drug murder connected to a “mysterious” cartel lord—count the superfluous character actors—who also happens to be a corrupt cop. Frequency, a 2000 flick with a similar idea, similarly devolved into simple theatrics instead of using its father-and-son-talking-through-time concept to explore obvious family dynamics. So Jack and Ashley devise plans to solve the case across time; some are admittedly clever, like Ashley hiding a backpack full of evidence for Jack to pick up two weeks later, while a lot of others are unintentionally funny, like a trick with bubble gum that proves Oyelowo’s dedication to his craft as he delivers the following line with deadpan intensity: “This chewed up piece of gum, you can unthaw it.” Oyelowo is one of the most astute actors of his generation, but most of his screen time consists of forming confused reactions to a cell phone.
Estes is too impatient to get to the least interesting element of his film—the murder mystery—plowing through too many plot holes without letting Jack have some breathing space to buy into his preposterous situation, stripping the character of most of his credibility as a crack homicide detective who’s supposed to question even the most probable, let alone the supernatural. Jack almost immediately believes the girl on the other end of the line to be his dead niece calling from the past. The audience now has the ticking time clock that gives Jack three days to prevent Ashley’s murder.
Estes briefly showcases some artistic vision beyond the film’s otherwise paint-by-numbers crime aesthetic. It’s refreshing, too, that he opts to use unflashy transitions and editing techniques to give his film some uniform realism despite its high-concept premise. (Every time an aspect of the timeline is disrupted due to Ashley changing something from the past, the most we get is a simple series of camera shakes and jump cuts.) Still, it’s hard to shake alive an experience drenched in such sleep-inducing familiarity.
Director: Jacob Estes
Writer: Jacob Estes
Starring: David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Brian Tyree Henry, Mykelti Williamson, Alfred Molina, Byron Mann
Release Date: August 30, 2019