After wolves take a young boy outside his family home in rural Alaska, his mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keogh), writes to author and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) for help. She requests that he come to Alaska and track and kill the animal responsible for her son’s presumed death. Russell agrees to assist and what follows is a film that takes us in unexpected and not always explained directions.
Hold the Dark is a terrific, methodical thriller that further cements Jeremy Saulnier’s position as one of the most exciting directors currently at work. It does not share the frenetic pace of Green Room or Blue Ruin, preferring a more measured approach. But it’s one which still allows Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair to explore the familiar territory of crime and retribution.
Hold the Dark is as hard hitting as you would expect from Saulnier. He shoots violence like no one else. The scene in which we are introduced to the boy’s father, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), in Iraq, is jaw dropping. Saulnier does with cinema what James Ellroy does in the pages of crime fiction – bringing sudden and surprising violence down upon the heads of the characters you least expect. It’s not calculated or manipulative in the way Game of Thrones builds someone up, only to snatch them away at the end of an episode. It’s the reality of violence and its random selection. The surprise is almost as shocking as the act. Saulnier makes this brutal simplicity utterly mesmerising, creating an authenticity few can match.
In terms of scope, this is also Saulnier’s biggest film yet. There was nothing spectacular about the suburbia in which Blue Ruin’s visceral revenge tale played out. Neither was there much to see in cramped backstage confines of Green Room’s Nazi bar. But Hold the Dark makes the most of the grand vistas available with aerial shots of forests and mountains and epic scenery. The opening overhead sequence of Russell’s car arriving at the village even brings to mind the opening of The Shining.
Jeffrey Wright is excellent as Russell Core. He’s a bewildered man in a bewildering situation. Nothing is as it seems and everything is designed to throw him off balance – from the behaviour of the locals through to acclimatising to the minimal Alaskan darkness. His whole story is one of a man trying to do the right thing. He’s not sure if he can help with the wolf hunt, but he goes anyway. When things take a turn, and the police ask for his assistance, he also agrees to help. Before long he finds himself in a situation can he cannot, and will not, remove himself from. James Badge Dale is also very good as police chief Marium, and together with Russell they form a likeable partnership.
Skarsgård is excellent as Vernon. It would be tempting to classify him as man gone off the rails – his small family the only thing tying him to normalcy. Yet it becomes quite evident he was never ‘on the rails’ to begin with, as he conducts himself with a ruthless and psychopathic lack of empathy.
There are elements to Hold the Dark that have been left deliberately hard to decipher, which may prove frustrating for some. The movie does not give it to you straight on anything other than the basic elements driving the plot, so it does get confusing at times. But the evidence is all there. Take time at the end to reflect on everything that has occurred and the answers are in plain sight. In some ways the audience experience mirrors the role of the cops and Russell, in that we must examine these details in order to get the full picture, but we can still move forward even with the gist of it.
In a more spoiler inclined discussion, there is plenty more to unpack in Hold the Dark. It is dense with warped, alarming character motivation and plot deviations you won’t see coming. The deliberately slow pace leaves you unprepared for the outbreaks of violence and while Hold the Dark might not be Saulnier’s most straightforward movie, it’s still a great one.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Hold the Dark’ is currently streaming on Netflix.