“Don’t Let Go,” Blumhouse’s latest sci-fi thriller, has all the makings of being a good film: a great cast, good performances, and an interesting premise. But unfortunately, it’s full of genre clichés that end up miring the film in predictability.
Detective Jack Radcliffe (David Oyelowo) is a good cop and a good uncle to his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid, “A Wrinkle In Time”). His brother (and Ashley’s dad) Garret (Brian Tyree Henry) has had a shady past and is now trying to do better for his family. But something goes wrong and Garret, Ashley and her mother end up being killed in a set-up made to look like a murder-suicide.
As Jack, consumed by grief, starts to question what may have happened, he starts receiving phone calls from his dead niece. The calls aren’t coming from beyond but from alternate timelines — she exists in the past before the date of the murders, and he’s in the present, dealing with the loss of his family while trying to find out who killed them and why.
“Don’t Let Go,” which premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival under the title “Relive,” doesn’t try to build on the suspense of the mysterious phone calls which, if executed properly, could have benefited the film. Instead, writer-director Jacob Estes (“Rings”), inspired by the alternate-timeline premise in films like “Frequency” and “Memento,” fails to deliver any intrigue beyond the timeline revelation. There is no palpable tension between learning about the alternate timeline and the unveiling of the murderer, partially because the story relies too much on phone conversations between Jack and Ashley. Yes, that interplay between the two is needed, but without additional exposition about the antagonist, it feels like an easy catch-all solution once revealed.
What does work, and truly carries the film, is the emotional connection between Oyelowo, Reid and Henry. It’s very hard to create the illusion of deep attachments in scenes where none of the actors are physically together, so the chemistry is a testament to the actors’ impressive talent. Oyelowo makes Jack’s concern for his niece, and the love of his brother whom he knows is flawed, evident from the beginning, and Reid is perceptive and believable as a teenage girl navigating a relationship with her parents that needs mending, while relying on her uncle for support.
Henry, though only on screen for a few minutes, sells his all too brief role as a father trying and failing to get it right. “Don’t Let Go” never touches on the contrast of a black cop with an ex-con brother, despite the cultural discussion and deeper exploration of the relationship of the two brothers that could have been provoked. But Estes’ script completely skips this intriguing premise, under-utilizing the fascinating Henry and leaving quite a big hole in character exploration for the film.
Also appreciated was the film’s use of Los Angeles as an urban setting, as well as the view of it as an actual place where families live. All too often the neighborhoods considered to be the grittier parts of Los Angeles — particularly Compton, South Central and East L.A. — are shown to be gang- and crime-ridden wastelands when the truth is far different. Families exist in these neighborhoods, and though they are often faced with more challenges (and yes, more crime), they also thrive and have successful and flourishing lives there.
Cinematographer Sharone Meir (“Whiplash”) makes use of the contrasts that exist in these very real neighborhoods where empty warehouses can sit right alongside a row of residential family homes, where blocks that are extremely populated simultaneously feel vacant and disturbing.
Despite its trappings, “Don’t Let Go” is a family drama with a slight supernatural twist, and had Estes explored that, perhaps the film would feel more whole. Instead, it winds up being a thriller without any actual thrills.