The Labor Day weekend frame could be as much of a dumping ground for low-risk, rather unmemorable product as the dead of winter. And there are just some films to open in that specific weekend that simply lack any positive attributes worthy of sticking in the heart and mind. Jacob Estes’s Don’t Let Go, one of two wide-release newcomers to close out the summer season (the indie Bennett’s War edges out closer to the 1000 theater threshold), is somewhat distinctive and yet a victim of a rather imbalanced storyline that forces its otherwise smart premise to be wrapped up in yet another sub-standard Blumhouse production. Jason Blum may be the Sam Arkoff of his generation, and still is with the hit parade to prove it, but not every producer can shoot perfect homers every time. This supposed subgenre potpourri doesn’t come anywhere close.
On the surface, Estes (Rings) and co-writer Drew Daywalt (The Talisman) appear to have penned your simple police procedural with an errant flavor boost of family melodrama. LAPD detective Jack Radcliffe (David Oyelowo) keeps a steady career with small-squaw cases, and a close bond with his overly talkative niece Ashley (Storm Reid), whom he adores greatly. He’s rather quiet, listless, in need of a constant distraction, and a bit agitated against his imbalanced brother (Brian Tyree Henry). His whole world crumbles on cue, upon finding Ashley, his parents, and even their loyal dog murdered. A bit overly illustrated, but the more motivation Jack needs to slip into a controlled madness, perhaps the better.
Trying to solve the case becomes Jack’s obsession, the next subgenre ingredient thrown into the base broth, where its apparent dark universe spin on Back to the Future comes into focus. And yet, the type of film it roughly amounts to is not any clearer. It could just be Jack’s grief-heavy mind, or it could be as Ashley jabs with humor, an acquiescence with ESP. A series of phone calls could signal that Ashley’s still alive, or she’s speaking to her uncle from the past. It settles into the latter, with the pair interjecting back and forth to help connect the dots. If Estes had stopped there and found a better approach to weave the police drama with the time travel aspect, perhaps going more full-blown sci-fi, this would’ve worked well.
Sadly, Don’t Let Go finds itself unable to keep a firm grip on its wayward fantasy structure or the hidden desire to play realistically. And perhaps the thing forcing it to remain in this crude limbo is the inner motive of a potential suspect, nicknamed Georgie. It’s a good enough excuse to incorporate a corruption scandal subplot, something Alfred Molina feels most at home within the role of Jack’s superior at the precinct. And he’s convincing enough, in his few scenes of just how curious he is of his star detective’s debilitating state. It just does not fit, the very idea of a mini-scandal erupting in the detective’s evidence, it’s a minor deviation from what he and Ashley are attempting to accomplish, as far as disrupting space-time. But a deviation nonetheless, causing a drastic, bothersome shift in tone Estes clearly did not plan for.
It is a rather jumbled-up soup that ought to taste passable and yet turns out bland, primarily because there’s so much written that somehow needs to intersect, but simply comes up too short. Most of it mixes well, and that’s really on account of Oscar-winner Oyelowo, and Miss Reid, still known by many for her lead in A Wrinkle in Time. Their chemistry as uncle and niece sharing quick wit and quicker words keeps Estes’s layered storylines somehow coherent and accessible. There is something about Oyelowo when he’s working amid overwhelming desperation, he wears that as well as his appointed police badge. And Reid is still as much a subtle revelation as in her major screen debut a year prior, even if at times she comes off as a trope-friendly helpless damsel. Her intense poise and resiliency, particularly in the third act, that will luckily outweigh her belonging to any sort of formula.
But that, or her camaraderie with Oyelowo, was not for me to give a full blessing to Don’t Let Go. It is just a frustratingly confusing, overly busy mess of multiple stock plots combined together to create something possibly like a film, but that couldn’t likely resemble one in retrospect. At least not anything genuine or original, which this is furthest from. Jack is still a conflicted character, albeit poorly defined or determined, where his motivations eventually become the best of himself, which is already strained. He sells the key points that Estes lays out, but again it’s so much story for so little payoff, with many an empty calorie strewn about. Not enough to truly be considered one of the worst things to hit a multiplex in 2019, it’s still a decent time-travel tale, and I’m sure one could do a lot worse for a cinematic treat over the long holiday weekend. You could also do much, much better, the same way Jack could’ve done better to take care of himself, whilst finishing his case. (2.5/5 Horns Up)
Don’t Let Go opens in area theaters today; rated R for violence, bloody images, and language; 103 minutes.