The core of any time travel movie is always “What if?” What if you see that life-changing event coming, or what if you could change that pivotal moment? There’s a small subgenre within the trope which does not see a character blip along a timeline, but creates a mechanism for communication between now and then. Don’t Let Go joins The Lake House and Frequency in that small subset, where a MacGuffin that acts as a tin-can phone connects the past and present. In this case, it’s a cell phone signal, after Detective Jack Radcliff (Oyelowo) gets a surprise call from his niece, Ashley (Reid). It’s a shock because she died two weeks earlier, gunned down with her entire family in a mysterious home invasion. This is a voice from the literal past, because this is Ashley from before the murders. The call becomes Jack’s chance at a do-over, a way to rewrite events remotely, collecting clues to solve the crime while feeding enough information to Ashley to stop it from ever happening. It’s a fascinating ticking clock, and it works because Oyelowo leads the way as the brokenhearted survivor, bringing his investigative powers to bear while questioning his own sanity about reliving the worst experience of his life.
Don’t Let Go fits into what may seem like a lost genre, the supernatural thriller, where a tone of unease is more disturbing than any simple jump scares. Much of this mood comes from the score by Ethan Gold (who also provided the soundtrack to his brother Ari’s similarly instinctual Song of Sway Lake). A low, rolling undercurrent, interrupted by the metallic discord of a keyboard glockenspiel, creates a feeling of a broken dream and evokes Jack’s desperate attempts to pull his world back together.
But it’s writer/director Jacob Estes (Mean Creek) who really pulls it all together with a script that could just end up as a sloppy, confusing mess. Instead, he finds the kind of emotional truth that made the temporal mechanics of Looper work. In fact, Johnson’s twisting masterpiece is probably the closest point of reference, as timelines unfurl and collapse, breaking each other and setting up some new sense of hope. Don’t Let Go is smaller, grittier, and never reaches the same metaphysical heights, but its earnest melding of crime drama and backwards-forwards storytelling still touches the heart.
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