There’s a faintly clever premise behind “Don’t Let Go,” which might have served as the basis for a good thirty-minute “Twilight Zone” episode. But if Rod Serling had overseen it, the result would have been far more logically constructed and smoothly told than this sorry mess.
Jack (David Oyelowo), a Los Angeles police detective, and his niece Ashley (Storm Reid) are very close; he’s a sort of surrogate father figure, since his brother (Brian Tyree Henry) has had problems with drugs—and the law—and his sister-in-law (Shinelle Azoroh) seems only moderately maternal. In fact, from the amount of time Jack and Ashley spend yakking on their cell phones, one can only hope they have plans with unlimited minutes.
Actually, those calls are key to the plot, because their apparent disjointedness signals the chronological weirdness at the center of the plot. Jack gets a call from Ashley that suggests there’s something very wrong at home, and when he investigates, he discovers that she and her parents have been brutally murdered. He’s naturally shattered, and his partner (Mykelti Williamson) and their boss (Alfred Molina) insist that he take time off to come to terms with his loss.
But of course Jack can’t stop trying to find the truth behind the killings, and as he does so a strange thing happens—he begins getting calls from Ashley’s phone, and she seems to be at the other end. Eventually he will accept what at first he thinks impossible—that he’s receiving calls from the past, when Ashley was still alive. And in time they will effectively work together to solve the riddle of who was responsible for the mayhem that occurred—or from her perspective, will occur—at her home. Of course, Jack’s purpose will include saving Ashley from being killed at all (he seems less concerned, truth be told, with what might happen to her parents).
In practice what this means is that Ashley will undertake some dangerous investigations of her own, centering on how her father got roughed up and by whom, while Jack will use the evidence she finds, along with the results of his own sleuthing, to track down the villains. Both will run into serious trouble in the process; she’ll almost drown, and he’ll get shot, though he soldiers on nonetheless, making a fantastic recovery from a bullet wound.
Of course, fantastic is par for the course in this kind of time-twisting tale, and the fundamental problem with “Don’t Let Go” (which was originally titled “Relive”) is that Jacob Aaron Estes’ script deliberately muddies the waters so much that it’s almost impossible for the viewer to keep what’s happening straight. But instead of helping us out, as director Estes and his technical team (cinematographer Sharone Meir and editors Billy Fox and Scott D. Hanson) magnify the opacity with jerky, hand-held camerawork, jump cuts and fuzzy transitions, in order to make the viewer feel as lost at sea as Jack is.
They’re all too successful, and by the time the absurd resolution rolls around—an incredibly verbose shout-fest in which the images whirl around so desperately that so expect the unsteady-cam operator was drunk—you’ll probably be ready to give up trying to make any sense of what’s going on.
Oyelowo and Reid are both attractive performers, but both are pressed too hard here, especially the former, whose exhaustion proves contagious. Estes also pushes Williamson and Molina far too hard; both are capable actors, but their work here is subpar, a quality exacerbated by the makers’ predilection for using oppressive close-ups. Ethan Gold’s score is just as overemphatic in aural terms as the movie is visually.
On one matter, however, Estes has made a correct judgment—though one that viewers who regularly use smart phones will probably dismiss as even more implausible than the supernatural premise. Jack and Ashley never text one another; they always talk. That’s not very likely, of course; but Estes seems to realize that there’s nothing duller than showing a computer or phone screen to an audience and asking them to read the messages on them.
Unfortunately, the movie tells its story in so frantic and muddled a fashion that you’ll cease to care how it turns out long before it ends.