Don’t Let Go is a new quasi-time-travel mystery thriller from the mind of writer/director Jacob Estes, and follows detective Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo) as he attempts to uncover the mystery of how his entire family was brutally murdered one night after he dropped off his niece Ashley (Storm Reid) at her house. A few days after the crime takes place, Jack gets a phone call from his niece, but there’s a catch: the call is coming from two weeks in the past. With time running out until her and her family’s impending doom, and sinister forces from both Ashley and Jack’s timelines closing in around them, Jack has to put the pieces together by communicating across time with Ashley in order to gather the proper clues, and prevent her and her family’s murder from ever taking place. The movie also stars Byron Mann, Mykelti Williamson, and Alfred Molina.
Small-scale sci-fi is a hard game to play, especially if it involves time travel or a mystery element, but oftentimes (if handled well) it can lead to some of the most rewarding movie-going experiences a person can have. Just last year, we got Upgrade, another small sci-fi action thriller about a man with an A.I. chip in his head that helped him to walk and do a lot of really cool action stuff, and it remains one of the coolest original sci-fi films I’ve seen, with wonderfully inventive and imaginative sequences, and a severely underrated, killer lead performance from Logan Marshall-Green. Sometimes, though, things go in the opposite direction, and it’s in that camp that we find the likes of Skyline and The Circle (although I don’t think either of those had a budget quite as low as this one). Luckily, Don’t Let Go doesn’t so much fall into the latter category as much as it disappointingly fails to achieve the former. It’s not without merit, but what’s there is only barely so, and under a couple of revisions, I think it could have been something really special.
Surprisingly enough, I actually was expecting to like this film a lot less than I did, and there are a few key elements that help pull it out of the realm of total failure or disappointment, chief among them the performances of Oyelowo and Reid. Although at times Reid could overdo it a bit, and I wish there were a little more to her character than just the phone call/murder element, she turns in genuinely solid work throughout the film, and I really did care about her side of the time splice, and how she was going to change things to get out of it. Sometimes those changes don’t really line up cohesively, but that’s more the fault of the script than anything else, as Reid consistently delivers a performance that explains why she got that Wrinkle in Time job (despite the movie not being all that good) in the first place, and why Hollywood deserves to let her stick around for a while. She’s got a lot of untapped potential that Don’t Let Go gives us a sneak peek at, and with a proper script and more precise direction, she really could just blow our minds one day and walk out with one of those gold statues The Academy makes.
However, as impressed as I was that Reid was able to pull a performance like that out of a mostly bare-bones character, I was even more impressed at how great David Oyelowo was despite some scenes not giving him all that much to do or suffering from being under-written (at least from a character perspective). Oyelowo first burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion with the 2014 Ava DuVernay drama Selma, in which he played Martin Luther King Jr., failing to be nominated for an Oscar he easily could have had a shot at winning (the film went on to be a Best Picture nominee and win Best Original Song, those being the only two nominations to its name). Since then, he hasn’t exactly taken the lion’s share of awards-hopeful roles, though his turns in the 2016 films Queen of Katwe and A United Kingdom do warrant some previously unacquired attention. What’s most frustrating about this is watching this movie, with its underdeveloped script and ambitious but unseasoned directional choices, try and fail to make Oyelowo’s character more interesting by forcing him into situations and decisions that the actor’s performance clearly indicates he’s not dumb enough to fall for. It’s not as noticeable in the moment, but after watching the film, you can start to pick it apart pretty easily as a result of some things that happen around the halfway point that don’t really make as much sense as they should. No spoilers, but suffice it to say, the movie gets a bit too convoluted for its own good, and Oyelowo’s performance is the main thing helping it stay afloat for a majority of the runtime. He is genuinely great in this movie, and a big part of why it doesn’t quite fall into the truly “bad” bunch of low-budget sci-fi films (even though we don’t really get to see him do much actual detective work outside the main narrative or interact with his coworkers very much apart from when he’s injured).
Really, the biggest problems this movie has are in its script and direction. As ambitious as a project like this is to take on (and I commend Estes for doing so), it does feel like something that’s been done before, probably as well or a little bit better, and it doesn’t seem to really have a sincere directional vision like other small-scale sci-fi movies such as Upgrade or Ex Machina possess. At times it feels like a student film with a larger-than-usual budget for a project like that, and while that’s not entirely a bad thing, it is noticeable, and that quality does drag it down a few pegs from where it otherwise might have landed on the 0-10 scale. This is very much Estes’ story, and the script is commendable for what it attempts, but in trying to craft a more ambitious narrative, as well as a deeper mystery than what the marketing sold us on, it gets a little too into itself, and ends up somewhat tripping over its own shoelaces. In essence, the smarter it tries to get with the detective elements, the more the time splice logistics fall apart. Again, it’s not unwatchable or a bad movie by my estimate or any traditional measures, but it just feels undercooked, like Estes wrote the first draft of the script, but didn’t trust anyone else to handle the material and didn’t let anyone else look at it before going into production (although, obviously, people looked at it or it wouldn’t have made it to screen; what I’m referring to is more the feeling the film leaves you with).
There are a few other characters I wished we could have seen more interaction with as well, namely those of Mykelti Williamson and Alfred Molina, as well as Storm Reid’s family (the father being played by Brian Tyree Henry, proving in just under a minute or two of total screen-time that he might be the single greatest/most underrated actor discovery of this generation). Yet another fault of an underdeveloped script is that most of the side characters don’t really get to have personalities or characteristics of their own to help the audience relate to, sympathize with, or ultimately fear them in any convicting capacity. Again, it doesn’t completely break the movie or anything, but one can’t help feeling afterwards as if all characters except Oyelowo and Reid are just chess pieces to be moved around in order to solve the central mystery. Molina is really good, too, for what little time he’s on screen, so it’s unfortunate that he has such little impact on the overall story.
In the end, Don’t Let Go isn’t so much a bad or even disappointing film as it is one that will likely leave theaters with nary a soul whispering its name as it passes onto home video, which is sad, considering I actually admire the ambition of its writer/director in putting something like this into theaters. Oyelowo and Reid turn in solid performances, but a noticeably underdeveloped script and lack of clear direction make this low-budget sci-fi (although watchable) an unfortunately unremarkable, and ultimately passable, experience at the movies. It’d probably still be a decent Redbox rental, though.
I’m giving “Don’t Let Go” a 5.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.