One of the best parts of being a film journalist is conducting research. Whenever it comes to writing about a movie or a particular talent, one must dive into the source material as well as the people who support that story’s credibility.
David Oyelowo is an actor for whom I have great respect. He impressed me with his natural on-screen abilities in such works as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, A Most Violent Year, and, most notably, Selma. Humanity seeps through in his performances no matter how big or small. If you have ever seen Oyelowo talk outside of the roles he plays, it is readily apparent he understands how to craft an authentic character. He speaks in such a philosophical rhythm that it’s shocking he hasn’t put pen to paper more often.
Fortunately, for Blumhouse Productions’s new thriller Don’t Let Go, Oyelowo seized the opportunity to contribute to the creative process.
Bearing some resemblance to the 2000 films Frequency and Memento, Don’t Let Go centers on the unbreakable bond between an uncle and his niece. Oyelowo portrays Jack Radcliff, a steady-handed police officer who is a supportive uncle to Ashley (an exceptional Storm Reid). Jack plays a significant role in Ashley’s life due to her parents’ negligence. But then Jack gets a terrifying phone call from Ashley and later finds the whole family murdered in their home.
Desperate to find out what happened — and why — Jack investigates the case. Just as things become more complicated and emotional for him, Jack receives another call from Ashley, seemingly beyond the grave. But don’t fret. This is not that kind of Blumhouse movie. By some spiritual or otherworldly miracle, Ashley instead calls from the past, two weeks before her and her family’s murders. Thus, turning the tragic story into a rescue mission to alter history and bring about a brighter future for both parties.
As originally conceived by writer-director Jacob Estes (2011’s The Details), this story was not set in South Central Los Angeles. It also did not feature certain character elements as depicted in the final film. Initially, Don’t Let Go took place on a farm in Ohio, and Oyelowo’s role was not devised with a black actor in mind. Oyelowo’s involvement helped to evolve the supernatural, kinetic story into a film with more emotional stakes.
“I was very glad to be approached for the film, but I just couldn’t picture myself playing a cop in a farming community in Ohio,” Oyelowo said by phone. “[My journey with Estes] began towards developing the film into something where the premise retained that emotional, familial relationship between an uncle and his niece. Once we decided to set the story in L.A., it afforded us a whole level of cultural and geographical specificity. I was very much in the passenger seat alongside Estes in developing those elements.”
It is not uncommon for actors to bring their ideas to the table. Some of the most approachable filmmakers encourage an open and collaborative process, as Estes did during the making of Don’t Let Go. As both an actor and a producer, Oyelowo’s fingerprints are all over the film. It’s even visible in the opening sequence where Jack and Ashley discuss movies and their lives while eating at a local diner. For such a brief interaction, you can sense a palpable history between the characters.
“We always knew the perfect structure of the film would be to establish how close [Jack and Ashley] are and that audiences would be quickly put on a ride. The movie should be asking you the questions of: Will they reconnect? Will Ashley provide Jack with the tools he needs so she can save herself? And will she [therefore] be able to save him? These are big ideas to fit into a movie under two hours, so we knew we couldn’t spend too much time trying to establish everything. That diner sequence at the beginning was a moment we put a lot of thought into,” Oyelowo said.
With Oyelowo so firmly attached to the film, one wonders if any surprises still occurred during or after his first viewing. There is a particular visual language Estes brings to the film that elevates Jack’s humanity. One shot of Jack and Ashley talking on the phone together in the same location at different times highlights the close connection of these two characters. That genuine connection is an aspect that amazed Oyelowo.
“Even though our characters’ relationship plays out over phone calls and not in the same location, [Reid and I] were always there on the day of filming. If [Reid] was doing a scene on the phone, I would be there to do the conversation by phone,” Oyelowo said. “Between takes, we would talk to each other and rehearse together, so that connection felt real. We reacted to each other like our characters were nearby. I think being conscious of how much the audience has to buy into the relationship was important.”
Despite how complicated or illogical the concept may seem, the time travel component is not at the forefront. Don’t Let Go is a story that is more concerned with characters than its plot, a focus reinforced by its active themes and how character decisions do not insult the viewers’ intelligence.
“As a father myself, I was drawn to this notion of what you would do to save the ones you love, and how far you would go. That, of course, is a theme in the movie. But we continued to put pressure on that question as we continued to develop the film,” Oyelowo said. “There are certain parts in this story that we know and love from a cinematic point of view, whether it’s a film that incorporates time travel, a whodunit, or a detective murder mystery. Don’t Let Go has all of those elements to it. But the thing that was most important and helps you overcome anything that may feel familiar is the universal theme of love.”
While this theme could have easily fallen prey to camp and cheese, the film works its rewarding magic on you without leaving you feeling entirely manipulated. Don’t Let Go is an unconventional love story between an uncle and his niece. Anyone who has experienced loss can relate to the idea of wish fulfillment. Perhaps you have asked yourself, “If I could turn back time, what would I have done differently?” As Oyelowo stated in our conversation, “We don’t know what we have until it’s gone.” This simple universal truth transcends genre tropes.
The film’s conclusion may lean too heavily on the detective side of the scale, but the genuine feelings of love never fade away. How far the story came from its original conception is an incredible journey of collaboration, and rarely do you get a perspective from a talent as honest as this. Here’s to hoping Oyelowo steps more on the other side of the camera, because he has grand potential to mold extraordinary work.
Don’t Let Go is now playing in select theaters across Dallas-Fort Worth. In Denton, the film is screening at AMC Classic Hickory Creek 16 through Sept. 19.