Don’t Let Go defies easy categorization. Critics usually mean that as praise, but in this particular case, I mean to say it is unfocused. It is ostensibly a thriller, one where a mild-mannered police detective must solve a case before it is too late. Sounds simple, right? The thing is writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes includes a convoluted time travel premise that seemingly makes up rules as it goes along. Films like Back to the Future and even Primer sidestep this problem through clever, imagination-stirring expository dialogue. There is little like that here, and despite all that, the film somehow still works. Maybe it’s the forcefulness of the performances, or that the characters are just as confused as we are.
David Oyelowo stars as Jack, a detective in Los Angeles who is close with his niece Ashley (Storm Reid). He picks up the slack left by his brother Garret (Brian Tyree Henry), who has run-ins with law enforcement. At this point, I should probably pause and note Henry’s appearance here is downright bizarre. After the success of Atlanta and Widows, he’s a proven screen presence, and here he is relegated to an afterthought of a supporting role. Don’t Let Go was filmed in summer 2017, before he really blew up, and yet the film’s marketing makes no attempt to highlight the supporting cast. Indeed, interest and support for this one has been lacking, particularly since it debuted with the title Relive at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The plot springs into action when Jack discovers Ashley murdered in a home invasion, along with both her parents. Something strange happens soon afterward: he gets a phone call from Ashley’s number. He answers, and she is on the line. There is no explanation for how this happens, and it’s even weirder since she is literally calling from the recent past. Jack does not question his metaphysical good fortune, and instead does what he can to prevent Ashley’s murder from ever happening. This leads to a bizarre police procedural, one with multiple timelines and an answer to what happens to the future when you change the past.
Although Jack does eventually impart what is happening to Ashley – or at least a past version of Ashley – he rarely says what he is thinking. This storytelling technique can be involving, even though some scenes are difficult to follow. Estes expects the audience will stay a couple steps behind, so the middle section includes stretches where part of the fun is getting inside Jack’s head. Once we’re all caught up, however, the opposite starts to occur: the mystery of Ashley’s murder is trivial to solve, and there is impatience when the film treats the whodunit as some big surprise. Too much exposition is a bad thing (for thrillers in particular), yet they serve some purpose. It makes sure everyone is on the same page, more or less, but Don’t Let Go avoids all that. You will not want to see this one with your friend who already asks too many questions.
Like any time travel movie, Don’t Let Go relies on the strength of its actors. Oyelowo is in nearly every scene, and his role requires a wide gamut of emotional beats. Some scenes come with a rueful sense of irony, since he is often the only character who fully understands what is at stake. You may recognize Reid from A Wrinkle in Time, where she played the lead role, and while her performance is somewhat flat, there is a vulnerability to her acting that allows for instinctual sympathy. Aside from the aforementioned Brian Tyree Henry, Alfred Molina and Mykelti Williamson are reliable as Jack’s fellow police officers. Few scenes directly acknowledge the time travel premise, and so the cast must work in within the context of a given scene’s present drama. It works the immediate moment, although it does not exactly hang together.
In Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, there is a line where Austin attempts to make sense of time travel, only to become cross-eyed. Maybe that moment inspired Estes, who has a definitive answer to the question about what happens to the future when you change the past. The answer is somewhat satisfying in a dramatic sense, and it goes out on a limb since the whole point of a paradox is that it has no answer. Don’t Let Go does not easily fit into any genre, and lacks the specificity to become a cult classic. Its destiny seems to be the haze of late night basic cable. It may seem awfully familiar, in more ways than one.