It’s somewhat telling when a film debuts before a festival audience and then undergoes significant changes before it’s released to the general public. Very rarely is a film altered by studio demand and made better as a result. Some of these changes take place well behind the scenes, so movie-going audiences might not be aware, thus protecting the studio and allowing a chance for profits. However, when the title is changed, that’s pretty obvious. It means the studio didn’t really believe in the project, and changed the name in hopes that the press and the public wouldn’t realize. Such is the case with Blumhouse’s latest thriller, Don’t Let Go, which premiered at Sundance back in January as Relive. I’m guessing the name change was meant to make the film seem more emotional and heartfelt (or invoke the En Vogue song), rather than describing an experience that audiences won’t want to have with this.
The first major directorial outing by Jacob Aaron Estes (The Details, Mean Creek), the movie has an interesting premise – even if it is derivative – but sadly the idea is wasted, along with an all-star cast, thanks to a bunch of bad cop movie clichés and an almost complete lack of narrative logic. This is a movie that could have been spectacular if handled properly, but instead it will go down as a well-intended flop (evidenced by its 15th place finish on a weekend box office won by Angel Has Fallen when there was basically no new competition for it to run against).
David Oyelowo stars as L.A. detective Jack Radcliffe, who the movie shows us is a good man because he picks up his niece Ashley (Storm Reid of last year’s biggest disappointment, A Wrinkle in Time) from the movies one night when her dad (Brian Tyree Henry) flakes out on her. Ashley loves Jack, and Jack loves Ashley. They’ve got each other’s backs.
That’s about all we know about the characters, and all we’re allowed to know, before the movie quickly shifts gears into the major inciting incident of the film. Shortly after the opening “rescue,” Ashley calls Jack screaming, and he later discovers her body in her house, murdered along with her father, mother (Shinelle Azoroh), and even their dog (this is as good a time as any to point out a wonderful site called http://www.doesthedogdie.com/ that crowdsources spoiler material that could trigger anxiety and panic reactions in audiences – use it with discretion, but it’s worth a look if you’re wondering about plot details and emotional crises).
At the funeral, Jack’s partner Bobby (Mykelti Williamson) does his best to console him, but Jack is utterly despondent, wishing he had a second chance. Lo and behold, that second chance presents itself mere hours later, as Jack gets a call on his cell phone from Ashley, even though her phone has been deactivated, what with her being dead and all. Jack even goes to the crime scene and takes her phone to see the miracle with his own eyes. There’s a call from her phone, but the phone he holds is not even on.
As he learns, Ashley is calling him from the past, specifically from the day before her and her family’s grizzly deaths. Doing his best not to spoil things, Jack asks Ashley to undertake certain odd tasks to both confirm his theory and hopefully preemptively solve her murder, thus preventing it. Whenever the past is altered, a strobe/vibrator effect happens in Jack’s head, altering his present.
If this premise sounds familiar, it should, as it’s very similar to the 2000 film, Frequency, starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel. In that film, Caviezel, through a ham radio, is able to contact his late father, Quaid, using the technology to both bond with his dad and prevent his untimely death multiple times.
That film, while it hasn’t aged well, was generally well-received because of two major elements that Don’t Let Go completely lacks. The first is the science fiction. While it’s mildly preposterous, Frequency does go out of its way to provide some kind of plausible fake movie science explanation for how the time-travelling radio signals are possible – essentially bouncing off of aurora borealis and being held up in the space-time continuum. It’s not that convincing, especially since we’re talking about firefighters and cops figuring this out rather than scientists, but at least it seems feasible.
In this movie, however, there is no such explanation, nor is there even an attempt at it. At best we get the funeral scene, which is basically just a slow zoom on Oyelowo crying while he voices over from the car that they smash cut to for the next shot that he was praying for a second chance. These calls from Ashley are apparently the answer to that prayer, but even if that’s the reason, it’s really shoddy. If God was going to intervene, why not just stop their deaths? Why go through all this rigmarole of solving a crime before it happens? Just don’t let them get killed.
More importantly, why is Ashley the only one worth saving? Again, if there is literal divine intervention here, why not save her parents too? Why not the fucking dog? Why is she more deserving of life than the others? From what little exposition we get, we learn that her father got mixed up with drug dealers and spent some time in jail, which presumably is why a mysterious character called Georgie (known only to a few at Jack’s precinct, including his boss, played by Alfred Molina) is gunning for him. But we see that he’s a decent, loving person who’s trying to turn his life around. He writes music, he makes up for flaking on Ashley in the first scene. So why is he expendable? I want to know just as much about him as his saint of a brother in the lead role. And what of Susan, Ashley’s mother? Basically her only crime is standing by her man through all his issues, so why does she still deserve to die horribly?
It doesn’t make any sense, which is why the idea of heavenly interference is bullshit at best, and it feeds into the other major problem that Frequency got right. That movie spent a good deal of time establishing the father/son dynamic between Caviezel and Quaid, developing it over the course of the film from a strong foundation. Here, we get one expository scene of Jack picking Ashley up, then another of them joking with one another, then the murders. There’s nothing to establish why Jack and Ashley have such a rapport, or whether Jack has any kind of relationship with his brother and sister-in-law. There’s no character development, and no interpersonal dynamics to suggest why Ashley’s life matters more than anyone else’s. It’s just precocious niece and cool uncle for two minutes, then tragedy, then magic to give cool uncle a chance to save precocious niece. Why do we care? If only Disney could insert a cheesy pop song to slap us across the face…
And why is Jack considered such a saint? From the moment the murders occur, Jack falls right into cop movie tropes, trying to investigate the case himself even though he’s too close to it, getting racistly accused of committing the crime himself from a dick Internal Affairs detective (Byron Mann), tampering with evidence at the crime scene, and directly disobeying orders from his superiors. Meanwhile, the entire mystery is just your standard issue “corrupt cops working with a crime syndicate” story, and the only real question is how dirty each major character is other than Jack. The whole thing eventually devolves to a default shoot-’em-up that kills any intrigue the central premise might have had.
And it really sucks because this is an amazing cast doing their best with shit material that goes nowhere. Even Storm Reid, who hasn’t had the best projects to start her career, still did an admirable job with what she was given. But that doesn’t excuse a half-assed story ripped off from a better film. I mean, is there a purpose to any of this? Is there a reason we’re supposed to care about any of these people? And is there meant to be any sense of wonder about the impossible? The movie just shrugs its shoulders and tries to keep changing the past, both in the story and in the real world, hence the change in title. At least I assume so. My memories may have been altered. And if not, I may take drugs to alter them myself and forget I saw this movie.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? If you could talk to a dead relative in the past, what would you say? Would you tell them to watch better movies? Let me know!