I will, with some mystified sadness, credit Don't Let Go with showing me one thing I wouldn't have necessarily expected to see: it turns out that you can assemble a cast that is approximately 50% comprised of David Oyelowo, Alfred Molina, Mykelti Williamson, and Brian Tyree Henry, and still have absolutely nothing worth watching in the finished product. Whatever that finished product might be. Dont Let Go is the by-some-accounts heavily re-edited and revised version of a film called Relive that played at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, reworked to increase clarity and make more sense of the time-jumping storyline. I hope that those accounts have it backwards, because if this is the version of this film with more clarity...

Whatever version, the film is about the bonds between an uncle and a niece, facing the cold, dark, violent world. Jack Radcliff (Oyelowo) is a homicide detective with the LAPD, and Ashley (Storm Reid) is the daughter of his dissolute brother Garrett (Henry), a former drug dealer who might have fallen back into his old habits. Jack devotes just as much time to providing a stable, supportive father figure for Ashley as he does fighting crime, which makes it extra-heartbreaking for him when the latest crime turns out to be Ashley's own death - she and her parents are found dead in their house, with Garrett apparently having gone on a cocaine-fueled murder-suicide rampage. This quite destroys Jack, who blames himself both for not protecting his niece and for goading his brother, and he spends the next several days in a self-loathing haze. This ends with a call from Ashley's phone, and apparently from Ashley herself: as Jack quickly determines, she is somehow speaking to him from precisely two weeks to the minute in the past, a few days before the crime, and he begins using her - not at first letting her know what grisly fate waits for her - as his eyes and ears, trying to solve the crime in the present so he can prevent it in the past.

If that makes sense so far, don't worry, it will very quickly cease to. Jack and Ashley's shared investigation reveals the anticipated Dark Secrets - it will come as, I hope, absolutely no surprise whatsoever that Garret did not commit suicide at all, but that he had run afoul of a sinister, secretive group of corrupt cops.. It's helpful that that's a dull-eyed cliché, because if it weren't, I don't know that I'd have been able to make any sense out of Don't Let Go at all. Perhaps owing to its bifurcated, time-separated protagonists, perhaps owing to sheer messiness, the film does a remarkably poor job of laying out relatively basic plot materials. The biggest is the identity of Georgie, a name Jack encounters that isn't clearly pointing towards anything at all until we get the big "ah-ha!" moment where it's supposed to be surprising that we learn Georgie's true nature. But the film has done such a shitty job of leading us in the wrong direction that it barely even registers as a reveal.

It's a tiresomely convoluted thing, given how meager the payoff is. Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes was, many long years ago, responsible for the very lovely coming-of-age indie film Mean Creek, and you can almost convince yourself that Don't Let Go has the soul of a 2000s indie somewhere underneath all of its cluttered genre material. There's something small-scale and character-oriented in how it favors Jack's moments of fear and self-doubt over his policework. The problem is that this leaves the policework severely underexpressed, with Molina as the chief detective and Williamson as Jack's partner, seeming to be the only other police officers in Los Angeles, and even then they emerge as significant figures in the story more because the actors are recognisable than because the characters have been given anything meaningful to do, or to distinguish them from background props. It's a very flat, aimless mystery, and Estes and crew haven't figured out how to sufficiently bury the mystery in the background for that to work. Instead of being a vivid story of an uncle desperately trying to save the life of his dead niece, Don't Let Go ends up feeling like the story of a confused man repeatedly attempting to get a scared teenager to clarify the make and model of a car.

Meanwhile, the film is just the most terribly-made thing. Cinematographer Sharone Meir, who has worked with Estes on both of his previous films as well as on Rings, which he wrote for some reason, has clearly been tasked with making something rough and naturalistic out of all this, which in practice translates into a whole lot of watery-looking imagery with no contrast. The editing, meanwhile, feels more like an act of prayer and hope, cross-cutting between now and two weeks ago in a relatively streamlined fashion that cannot help with how muddied the thing is at a structural level. It's an ugly movie, and a chore to watch, is basically my point, with muffled sound and an overall feeling of aesthetic fatigue, like the whole movie badly needs caffeine and is quite surly about us bothering it by asking to watch it.

In the midst of all this, Oyelowo bravely soldiers on, apparently supposing that there's something about the story that will be worthy of him actually putting effort into the emotional reality of the central relationship. It's admirable, sad, and useless. No matter how many times he looks sad and strained, he simply cannot do a damn thing to breathe life into a story that keeps getting this tripped up over the basic details of its narrative. The Jack & Ashley relationship is obviously meant to be the core of all this, and if there's one thing that Estes's script actually does well, it manages to establish the stakes of that relationship for both participants relatively quickly and effectively. But the purely functional way this all plays out makes it extremely hard, if not altogether impossible, to care; the mystery starts to accrete so many complications that the film is obliged to devote too much energy to keeping it all straight (and fails at this anyway), so the stakes become solving the crime, rather than saving Ashley's life. This is a slight distinction, but a critical one, and it ends up making Don't Let Go an emotionally hollow thriller, when emotional depth is obviously it's only priority.