In reviewing “Don’t Let Go,” a hokey B-movie mystery thriller, I am reminded of an observation from Kilroy J. Oldster’s “Dead Toad Scrolls.”
“Our heart, the record keeper of personal feelings, emotions and attachments, honors conceptions that the lucid mind may not agree with,” Oldster wrote, and he’s right.
My lucid mind, for example, may tell you that “Don’t Let Go” is a mangled mess of a movie- nonsensical, implausible and downright confusing. And it would be right.
But at the same time, my heart keeps coming back to the film’s central performances by David Oyelowo and Storm Reid. Even as the impossibilities of the plot swirl around them like a gathering storm, Oyelowo and Reid stand firm as the film’s emotional anchors. “Don’t Let Go” is not a good film, per se, but it is a human one, which earns it at least a mild recommendation.
Director and writer Jacob Aaron Estes borrows heavily from 2000’s “Frequency” in telling the tale of homicide detective Jack Radcliff, who is shocked to discover that his brother, sister-in-law and niece have been brutally murdered in their home. But what initially appears to be a cut-and-dry murder-suicide quickly takes on more interesting dimensions when Jack receives a phone call.
The phone call is from his niece (Reid), who, it is worth reiterating, is definitely dead. Oyelowo’s reaction to the phone call- a combination of dread, confusion and disbelieving laughter – is just perfect and one of the many instances in the film when the acting elevates a hackneyed plot point.
While Jack’s niece is dead, it turns out that she is calling from two weeks in the past. This gives Jack some time to unravel the mystery of just what happened to his family in the present while he recruits his niece to go full Nancy Drew in the past and search for her own clues.
Thus, the story is eventually divided into two intersecting, but stand-alone stories – one anchored by Oyelowo and the other by Reid. Estes’ approach is surprisingly minimalist for this kind of sci-fi thriller – there are few supporting characters and most scenes focus in on the loving, self-sacrificing dynamic between the uncle and the niece.
If that relationship is underwritten a bit on the page, it is enlivened considerably by the performances of Oyelowo and Reid. Enough good things cannot be said about the wonders they work in these roles- imbuing stock characters with humanity, emotion and pathos. Even as the plot becomes more and more unhinged, the film works because you care about these characters, and you want them to make it out alive.
Those lead performances are aided considerably by Ethan Gold’s minimalist tension-building score. Like the performances, the score isn’t flashy, but it provides a needed jolt of humanity.
As Estes jockeys between the two plot lines, things quickly move from implausible to nonsensical to “What the hell is he thinking?” Even by the standards of time travel movies, “Don’t Let Go” (rated R for violence, bloody images and language) does not make a whole lot of sense. Like the niece you wonder: “Do you even know what’s going on?”
The mystery is as lackluster as the time travel business is confusing. A lot of talented actors – from Alfred Molina to Brian Tyree Henry- show up in supporting roles, but it’s not entirely clear why.
In the end, there’s only so much that Oyelowo and Reid can do to fix the fundamental story flaws of “Don’t Let Go,” and they only manage to elevate it from a surefire flop to a near-miss. Still, that Herculean effort prevents the film from being a total writeoff.
“Don’t Let Go” might be a mess, but at least it’s an emotional, earnest, good-hearted mess. That might not be high praise, but it’s still a minor accomplishment worth celebrating.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.