Movies that play around with time, time travel or our ability to change the past are a sticky situation at best. There’s one school of thought (namely the Back to the Future movies or Looper) that says we can go back in time and alter the future’s outcome. Still others say that we can’t change the future by messing with the past, and that instead, we’re simply creating an alternate timeline that diverges from the one we’re currently in (see Avengers: Endgame for recent examples of this). It’s confusing as hell, and I hate to break it to you, but none of it is real. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to play around in this particular sandbox.
Although not technically a time travel film, writer/director Jacob Estes’ (Mean Creek, The Details) latest, Don’t Let Go (which was originally called Relive when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has since been substantially recut) does offer up the intriguing scenario of police detective Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo, Selma) being able to receive cell phone calls from his teenage niece Ashley (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle In Time) from two weeks in the past. The problem is that in that two weeks, Ashley and her entire family are killed in their home and Jack is in the midst of investigating their murders. Jack is convinced that if he can somehow change the course of Ashley’s life in the past, he might be able to bring her back to life in the present.
As complicated as the setup may sound, Estes does a surprisingly deft job of keeping things straight within the two time periods. He’s actively trying to solve the murder with the help of his partner Bobby (Mykelti Williamson, Forrest Gump) and their boss Howard (Alfred Molina), while attempting to keep Ashley on the phone as long as possible and not tip her off where he’s talking to her from or what’s about to happen to her. Her father (and Jack’s brother) Garret (Brian Tyree Henry) has had dealings with the law before, so the police believe the murders are simply his past catching up with him, but Jack is on a different path.
Don’t Let Go doesn’t even attempt or seem to care about how this split in the timelines is even possible. As much as it uses elements of a science-fiction story, it’s more of a family drama/thriller that asks us to simply accept this device and move forward. But the truth is, Jack and Ashley have always been very close, since she grew up without a reliable father for much of her life. She could always depend on him, and the sheer force of his grief at her death seems to have willed this timeline situation into existence. Is it any more ridiculous an ask from the audience than the premise of 2000’s Frequency, in which a cross-time radio link connects father and son across 30 years? For a period, the film does leave open the possibility that Jack is simply crazy or maybe the voice he hears is a ghost rather than a live person from two weeks prior, which I guess is somehow more plausible?
There are a handful of really interesting sequences in which Jack and Ashley test the limits of their connection, including a fascinating scene in a diner where Jack asks Ashley to leave clues in her time that he can pick up in his, in order to prove that his claim as to the nature of their situation is genuine. There’s another moment where she goes to see the version him in her time (who has no idea any of this is going on), and the Jack on the phone desperately tries to keep her from doing so, fearing that it will only confuse the situation.
The biggest problems with Don’t Let Go all have to do with who actually killed Jack’s family and why. It’s too ordinary and largely predictable, and by keeping the identity of the killer a secret from the audience, we’re already suspicious of the few characters we’ve been introduced to in this relatively small-scale film from Blumhouse Productions. Oyelowo is one of the most reliable and genuinely great actors working today, and Reid does a great job of capturing that age where she’s just young enough to put her blind trust in her uncle while being old enough to question everything he eventually must reveal to her about their predicament. If it wasn’t for the actual plot of this movie, they’d be a great team in a better film.
I’ll give Estes and his players a certain amount of credit for coming up with a mostly original storyline and executing it with a great deal of skill and clarity. I only wish the filmmaker had taken more time building up the supporting pieces of Don’t Let Go to make it a seriously great movie. It’s still a mild recommendation but it’s far from essential viewing.
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