'Relive': Film Review | Sundance 2019

A suspenseful hybrid of murder mystery and time travel.

David Oyelowo plays a detective who gets a chance to undo the murder of his brother's family in Jacob Aaron Estes' supernatural mystery.

A cop races to prevent a multiple homicide that has already happened in Relive, Jacob Aaron Estes' supernatural suspense film. Grounded in realism thanks to a lead performance by David Oyelowo, whose character (for once in this sort of adventure) never seems to fully accept the reality of what's happening to him, the pic should be welcomed by genre fans who aren't yet burned out on time-travel variants.

Oyelowo plays Jack, a Los Angeles police detective who serves as occasional father figure to his niece Ashley (Storm Reid), stepping in whenever his brother (Brian Tyree Henry) struggles with drug problems. Ashley's home life seems happily stable at the moment, though, so it's doubly shocking when Jack arrives at their home and finds her, and both her parents, dead in a gory crime scene.

(About that discovery: This is the second time in a Sundance 2019 film — the first was The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind — in which audience members sat silently watching terrible things happen to humans, then gasped or wept at the sight of a dead dog. What's wrong with you people?)

Still in shock at the funeral, Jack confides to his partner Bobby (perennial movie cop Mykelti Williamson) that he was too busy to talk when Ashley called him shortly before her murder. He's overwhelmed with guilt. "I prayed that God would give me a second chance," he says. God or not, that second chance is on its way.

Jack starts getting calls from Ashley's phone number, despite the fact that her phone is in his possession. After a few calls and some clever experiments, he deduces that he is in fact speaking to Ashley, several days before her murder. If he can figure out who killed her, he might help her escape her fate. But she doesn't realize she's making a phone call to the future, and of course doesn't know she's about to be killed. Jack must get her to collect clues from her vantage point without breaking the poor kid's brain by explaining what's going on.

Since Ashley is moving forward in time at the same rate Jack is — if six hours elapse between their phone calls, six hours have elapsed for her as well — there's a ticking-clock aspect to Jack's quest that nicely recalls a movie like D.O.A. Noirish tendencies multiply once Jack's sweaty investigation puts him at odds with colleagues who think he's crazy from grief: Bobby and their chief (Alfred Molina) both attempt to soothe Jack, but neither wants him mucking around the crime scene and disturbing evidence. "Move forward," the chief urges — and the staging of these scenes will raise questions for the viewer that Jack is too preoccupied to wonder about.

Understanding that his scenario may not be complicated enough in relation to the other time-hopping films in the marketplace, Estes finds a way to twist things up, organically adding a Groundhog Day element. Time's still moving forward toward Ashley's death, but the detective work gets more interesting.

Those of us who've fallen in love with Henry's work on Atlanta will wish Estes had some way to do more with the actor here, but that's greedy: The near-exclusive focus on Jack's perspective is what drives the picture. If the secret truth about why his loved ones were killed is more ordinary than it might've been, the journey toward that truth is worth taking.

Production company: Blumhouse Productions
Cast: David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Mykelti Williamson, Brian Tyree Henry, Shinelle Azoroh, Alfred Molina
Director-screenwriter: Jacob Aaron Estes
Producers: Jason Blum, Bobby Cohen, David Oyelowo
Executive producers: Jeanette Volturno, Couper Samuelson, Eric B. Fleischman, Jay Martin, Matt Kaplan
Director of photography: Sharone Meir
Production designer: Celine Diano
Costume designer: Nadine Haders
Editors: Billy Fox, Scott D. Hanson
Composer: Ethan Gold
Casting directors: Terri Taylor, Sarah Domeier Lino
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

103 minutes