“Don’t Let Go,” a supernatural crime drama arriving in the dog days of summer from writer-director Jacob Estes and Blumhouse, is just strange and unusual enough to belong in the production company’s stable of strange and unusual movies, though also enough of a conceptual bait-and-switch that it stands out among the much zanier “Happy Death Days,” “The Purges” and “Paranormal Activitys” of the world.
The story juggles multiple timelines, puncturing the fabric of logic when Jack (the reliable David Oyelowo), a cop mourning the sudden murder of his niece – along with his brother and sister-in-law – suddenly receives a phone call with her on the other end and seemingly from before the crime, ostensibly setting up a trippy mind-bender of a movie.
But Estes here is interested mostly in humanity—not genre. The high-brow is just a different, if not unearned, guidepost to a formulaic cops-n’-robbers story, with shades of domestic drama barely potent enough to keep the world from operating outside a palette full of gritty greys.
It’s clear from the look on Oyelowo’s face when Ashley first calls; if he’s horrified at the incredulity of what’s happening, it only shows for a second. What he seems to be thinking isn’t “What is happening?” so much as “Does this mean I can help her?” The score following their conversation – the barriers of time and mortality be damned – hints at soothing, but grief-tinged, familiarity, not a cosmic conundrum.
It’s a pathos-first approach Estes employs, and which makes sense in light of the movie’s opening minutes, which observes Uncle Jack and Ashley (the wonderful Storm Reid, who feels, in this movie and out of it, destined to be a star) grabbing lunch and engaging in the kind of familial rituals that you can tell are exclusive to their interactions.
You don’t have to have to be a cinephile to notice they’ve got a bond (it’s perpetuated by some strong chemistry between Reid and Oyelowo), and even as the movie becomes a crime procedural, that bond remains a focal point as they work to figure out who is out to murder Ashley’s family. This is more Antoine Fuqua than Chris Nolan; more practical than magical.
Which is to say—I found the movie more familiar than I expected. Jack’s recreating of timelines and discovery of criminal perpetrators isn’t so much subverted by its timeline-meddling as much as it provides a thin coat of scarcely-intriguing paint. The suspense is mostly created in cutting away from the two timelines at the most obviously opportune of times, and not from intriguing story construction.
When Ashley – the Ashley that is still alive – is guided by Jack’s voice from the future to open new branches of reality as they try to prevent her murder before it’s supposed to happen, changes manifest as new clues in Jack’s reality to get to the bottom of why her father was targeted in the first place. But the movie struggles to coherently explain how exactly A skipped becoming B and instead turned to C; by this universe’s rules, C just happens to come after A, without any consequences.
Estes’s uneven direction makes it that much tougher to follow; eventually I found that whenever the narrative was at its least interesting is when I should be paying the most attention. The only reason a third-act twist felt surprising is because I found myself searching for anything in the movie to surprise.
And the pacing in some sequences feels downright tired, searching for some kind of momentum—it isn’t the reaction you look forward to having in a movie where the plot calls for every second to be of urgency.
I found myself thinking back to David Ellis’s “Cellular” (another movie where cell phones are harbingers of isolation just as much as a means of connection) as well as Tony Scott’s “Déjà Vu.” Mostly, I found myself longing for the scene-to-scene energy those movies didn’t forget.
But I expect that a fair share of audience member will appreciate how easy it is to roll with the fantastical in “Don’t Let Go.” It’s hard to imagine a movie toying with the complications of time being less complicated than in Estes’s screenplay; in sharp contrast to the comparatively Kubrickian time-hopping logic of “Avengers: Endgame,” it doesn’t suggest that there is much logic to explain.
In fact, it explicitly says so early on: “I pray that God would give me a second chance,” Jack confides to a colleague after the crime. It’s only a few minutes later – in movie-time – that Ashley calls him.
So perhaps the big man upstairs was listening. But the inherent inexplicability of this divine intervention – and referring to it as such is more than “Don’t Let Go” ever attempts – makes it difficult to engage with the consequences of what future-Jack advises past-Ashley to do. A theological statement is the last thing that I suspect “Don’t Let Go” is making, but if it’s indeed God initializing the proceedings as we are led to believe, doesn’t that ensure things will turn out as squeaky-clean as possible? That the Infinity Stones need not be returned to their rightful place, because they needn’t be plucked from the past at all?
We may be overthinking it. After all, the only thing doing any hopping through time are verbal communiques—InfiniteG cell service. But the point stands that that simplicity leaves something to be desired, a space I found myself yearning to be filled when the space doesn’t even exist.
The human story of “Don’t Let Go” is an isolated one. For better or for worse, its sci-fi concept is too—its most memorable effect on me coming in the form of an oft-repeated, dastardly musical motif that sounds like a Lovecraftian hopscotch on the piano.
Este’s movie “Don’t Let Go” initially premiered at Sundance earlier this year with the title “Relive.” Neither is especially memorable, but what the movie eventually came to be called feels like a more appropriate embrace of the director’s priorities: Familiar crime drama that’s only supported by its more fantastical premise. I can’t help but think the movie would be more interesting if it was the other way around.
“Don’t Let Go” is rated R for violence, bloody images and language
Starring: David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Mykelti Willliamson
Directed by Jacob Estes