The premise of Don’t Let Go by modern movie standards isn’t that outlandish. But its refusal to address, or even care, about how anything happens may put off some people. It didn’t put off me as I was wholly in the movie’s bag from start to finish.
Jacob Aaron Estes’ movie is a convoluted and filled with plot holes as any big-budget action movie playing right now. The only difference is its budget and the caliber of actors and craftsmanship on display. Both, it should be said, Don’t Let Go has in abundance compared to its box office juggernaut brethren.
If you’ve ever seen Frequency or Lake House, you’ll have some idea of what to expect from Don’t Let Go. Detective Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo) has a close and loving bond with his niece Ashely (Storm Reid). Imagine his horror and anguish when he gets a frantic phone call from her one night and rushes over to her house only to find her, his brother, and sister-in-law gunned down.
As you may have guessed, we’ve wandered into the sub-genre of “ghosts from the past reach out to the present through some sort of communication device.” A sub-genre which, much like the movie’s title, could use a little work. But as forgettable as the title Don’t Let Go may be, Oyelowo and Reid pulls us in and keeps us riveted.
The two have a sweet chemistry and have little trouble convincing us of their closeness. Early on as the two are out to eat Reid’s Ashley draws a heart and gives it to her uncle. Jack takes the heart and adds a body, arms, and legs. He hands the drawing back to her, and she adds more. It’s a game they play, but unlike some movies, it feels like a real game that an uncle and a niece might play in a diner late at night.
Of course, Jack’s grief is overwhelming, and his commanding officer Howard (Alfred Molina) suggests taking some time off. Jack’s partner and close friend of the family Bobby (Mykelti Williamson) is his lifeline to the case. Or was until he gets a strange phone call from Ashely’s phone. A phone he bought her to call him in case she needed help.
Don’t Let Go is absurd on its face. But plenty of movies are preposterous and are much beloved and heralded. Few of them though are as grounded in emotion and a joy to behold as Oyelowo and Reid. The two shares, maybe four minutes of screen time, but their gravitation towards each other feels natural.
To Estes’ credit, he understands that messing with things in the timeline will have ripple effects on the present. Estes picks and chooses what changes what doesn’t, which is his prerogative. After all, in a time travel movie, the time travel itself is hardly the point. It’s a movie, not a logic puzzle which needs to be solved, no matter what the fan boards may say.
Something like spray painting an X onto the door of a shed out back causes literal ripples to appear on the screen and Jack’s reality to tremble. He turns around only to see a red X and realizes the voice on the other end of his phone is indeed Ashely. So they do what anyone else would do, try to solve her murder without telling her, so she doesn’t rightfully freak out
Part of the charm of Don’t Let Go is Sharone Meir’s camera work. Mostly handheld Meris’ camera doesn’t strive for authenticity so much as intimacy. He gets right up close to Oleyelowo and Reid’s face at times so we can feel their exasperation and exhaustion. At other times he pulls back and lets us take in a character watching a sunset.
Don’t Let Go is a mishmash of genres, but in the end, it’s a movie about longing and obsession. Granted, most movies are about longing and obsession. Estes and Meir, however, find little moments that sit in our memories as perfect codas to perfectly timed scenes. Scenes like the back and forth between Jack and Ashely in the same diner from the beginning of the movie.
The two are in different timelines but in the same place. Meir pulls back and we see a shot of the two sitting together through the window ever so briefly. It is a sweet and optimistic scene in a movie which strives for hope and redemption. Don’t Let Go is not a morality tale, nor is it some nihilistic spectacle.
It is a somewhat middling film with precious little pretense and filled with convolution after convolution. Watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder what police headquarters would allow a shot and wounded detective to wander into the evidence room and wander around, with or without his partner. Then again if I’m going to let a silly little thing like “that wouldn’t happen” bother me I should probably not be watching a movie about a dead niece who calls her uncle in the future, and together they solve her murder.
I’m a sucker for most time travel stories and Don’t Let Go didn’t disappoint. Its awful title aside, I found myself enjoying the characters as they tried to figure out what was going on. Don’t Let Go may not be the gutsiest, the wackiest, or even the best movie out right now. But hey, it’s not the worst one either.