What would you do if you received a call from a dead niece’s phone? Would you work with the apparently-not-dead-yet version of her to prevent her murder a few days earlier? Probably not, because you’re neither a homicide detective nor can you shatter the confines of spacetime.
But that’s what happens to David Oyelowo’s character Jack Radcliffe in Relive, a sci-fi thriller from Blumhouse Productions that premiered at the genre-friendly midnight hour at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Soon after the horrific murder of his niece, Ashley (A Wrinkle in Time’s Storm Reid), Los Angeles detective Jack gets a call from his victim relative — and she’s dialing in from the past. Logically, Jack decides to get her niece to look around for clues that may solve the murder before it happens. It’s basically a time-traveling whodunnit, without too much consideration over the whodunnit part.
A great thriller works on the audience’s senses through character experiences. Revelations are felt, not simply unloaded. Beads of sweat drip down the actors’ faces to convey what’s on the line. The eyes provide windows to the turning gears in a mystery-solver’s head. That’s where the film, by Jacob Aaron Estes (Mean Creek), excels; Oyelowo and Reid deliver grounded, ticking-clock performances, which helps give the story some weight as the sci-fi conceit breaks the rules. Jack is overwhelmed with grief and guilt over not being able to protect his family as he tries to maintain a clarity needed to do his job. He’s also terrified of having to explain how he knows so much of what is happening, or will happen, to Ashley — technically, he’s not playing by the rules.
Relive doesn’t waste much time explaining those rules. This means the time traveling is poorly defined, which actually winds up being a refreshing take on what is one of the most complicated subgenres. We don’t waste time trying to explain paradoxes, or what you can or can’t change in the past. Everything is game, even if it doesn’t immediately make sense.
Of course, Estes still has fun with the time travel. The director visualizes new timelines and the ripples of the Butterfly as a wave carrying the changed timeline that smacks Jack and expands to cover the screen (fans of Legends of Tomorrow will be familiar with the concept). Some changes are simple, like the painting of a red “X” on the garage door, while others, like calling the police, have bigger, deadlier, consequences for everyone.
Estes and his co-writer Drew Daywalt can’t help but indulge in police procedural tropes and a dangerously slow pace. Early on, Jack resists answering the phone calls from his dead niece, though once he does, he immediately buys the validity of the supernatural calls. He just rolls with it — and enjoying Relive takes the same leap of faith. There are also some very questionable actions; at one point, Jack takes a bullet to the gut, goes back to the police station, and walks around yelling nonsense while everyone just stands around watching him bleed to death like it’s a regular Monday afternoon.
Relive is more concerned with using the supernatural element as a tool to explore Jack’s grief and guilt than carving out a new section of fan-theory Reddit. Every role is cast to perfection, including Mykelti Williamson and Alfred Molina as Jack’s colleagues at the police force, or the always great Brian Tyree Henry as Ashley’s father, a man struggling to do the right thing when he also needs to provide for his family. As a murder mystery ready to solve, Relive leaves much to be desired, but as a pressure cooker for some strong performers, Relive is a thrilling and powerful film — even if you’d never pick that phone up in a million years.