The Blumhouse logo at the opening of Jacob Aaron Estes’ Don’t Let Go promises the potential for some creative budget-conscious thrills, but Don’t Let Go is unusually downbeat and somber for a Blumhouse genre movie, with a plot combining stock police-procedural elements and a supernatural twist that might have been passed over for the recent reboot of The Twilight Zone. David Oyelowo frowns his way through his performance as LAPD detective Jack Radcliff, who provides a much-needed support system for his tween niece Ashley (A Wrinkle in Time’s Storm Reid) when her unreliable parents let her down. Jack’s brother Garret (Brian Tyree Henry) seems to be turning his life around, though, really stepping up as a husband and father after overcoming a drug problem.
So it’s a complete shock when Jack discovers Ashley, Garret and Garret’s wife Susan (Shinelle Azoroh) dead in an apparent murder-suicide. Still consumed with grief, Jack gets a call a few days later on his cell phone that seems to be coming from Ashley. It turns out that Ashley actually is calling him … from the past! Jack is talking to the Ashley of two weeks ago, who’s completely oblivious to the gruesome fate that awaits her and her parents. The idea of a detective talking to a murder victim’s past self has plenty of pulpy promise, but writer-director Estes seems almost ashamed of the supernatural elements of his movie, focusing instead on dull crime-solving details, even though the central case is sloppily constructed and full of holes.
It’s pretty easy to guess who the bad guys will turn out to be, making the journey toward the climactic reveal mostly laborious. The nature of the story means that Oyelowo and Reid are almost never onscreen together, so the connection between Jack and Ashley lacks the emotional resonance it needs to carry the movie. Ashley’s parents are barely characters at all, and the talented Henry is especially wasted in a role that mostly requires him to loom in the background, portending bad things to come. Jack takes far too long to accept the basic premise that the audience grasps right away, and even longer to tell Ashley what’s really going on. Estes prolongs the suspense mainly by having the characters refuse to be forthcoming with each other, and the rules of the supernatural phenomenon are never clear enough to define the urgency of the situation.
Estes debuted 15 years ago with the lyrical teen drama Mean Creek and has since struggled to follow it up, and Don’t Let Go has a handful of moments that suggest the elegiac qualities of his first feature. Mostly, though, it’s functional and plodding, with stock cop-movie elements including the disapproving captain (Alfred Molina) and the concerned partner (Mykelti Williamson). The story could have been told as a standard crime drama without much difference, visually or narratively, and Oyelowo never gets beneath the surface of Jack’s single-minded dedication to truth and justice. He’s a one-dimensional hero in a one-dimensional story, committed to solving a case that a TV detective could probably crack in half the time, and without the aid of a time-traveling cell phone.