Hold the Dark begins like so many grim adventures of yore: with a journey to the end of the world. Opening on a man sitting on a plane headed for regions unknown, beckoned by an enigmatic and troubled note, the film foreshadows its very best and worst sensibilities. For this new Jeremy Saulnier thriller is about returning to our roots, including as storytellers, as a species, and as creatures of this Earth. Animals, really. It also returns to a root that attempts to chill to the bone but can leave you cold in other ways.
With Hold the Dark, the Green Room and Blue Ruin auteur enters his first Netflix foray, where he displays enough cinematic charisma in every frame to again disprove the cynical notion that Netflix originals are not genuine experiences. This is a picture about the lingering dread of the unknown, and wallowing in a time and place as remote as the Alaskan wilderness wherein the most dangerous animals are not the wolves who roam the landscape. And that might be a surprise for some of the characters, as the movie starts with the storybook-esque setup of Jeffrey Wright’s Russell Core being summoned by a desperate plea to hunt a wolf. The letter hails from Medora Slone (Riley Keough), a grieving mother living in a dying village near Alaskan mountains. Her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) has been away for a year or more in Iraq—the film, without drawing much attention to it, is set in the mid-2000s, but at times may as well be the 1800s if not prehistoric Europe—and now her son has been taken off by wolves. Russell Core, an author and advocate for wolf preservation, is Medora’s only hope of tracking the beast down and having her revenge.
It is fair to say that there is much more to the picture than meets the eye in this synopsis, but to say more would be to give too much way. However, the purpose of why Russell travels to Alaska is only as important as its hints toward the inexplicability of human behavior. Why take this letter at face value? Why agree to do something against your ethics and hunt the wolf? Why go to war?
The strange upright creatures suffering from the human condition do irrational things time and again throughout Hold the Dark, and in the process they more often than not become more bloodthirsty than the furry pack Russell reluctantly agrees to hunt. Yet the film is not something so schlocky as The Grey, or any other picture about man vs. beast. Rather the movie blurs the line if for no other purpose than it can, and that it provides a great pretense for an exercise in mood setting.
At a very deliberate and measured pace, that can at times be as patient as the very glaciers Russell and Vernon ultimately trek across, Hold the Dark is about putting a finer point on that cold rush that comes on the most sleepless nights. And that uncomfortable gust comes in violent outbursts filled with the most senseless of savage carnage. Genuinely, I cannot recall another movie where so many characters are unsuspectingly, and quite suddenly, shot in the face.
It is not a spoiler to say Vernon comes home from the war, and when he discovers his son is dead, he goes on a bloodlust of his own that is only the tip of an iceberg that places order against chaos, and rationality against the kind of primal, bug-nuts gun craziness that can only occur in America. There are several scenes of locals of varying walks of life revealing their capacity to kill can only be surpassed by their high-capacity rounds, and yet I do not think the film is making a political statement of any kind. The best I can reason is that it is that if humans are animals, then bullets have become our claws.
In this way, there are several incredibly visceral and genuinely stunning set-pieces in the film. One in particular involves a standoff between one of Vernon’s friends, a forgotten Native American named Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), and the local law enforcement, who tries to talk him into working with the cops to find Vernon after the bodies start dropping. The besieged man’s answer is to only tell the local sheriff that his pregnant wife is about to “get the phone call today” stating that he’s not coming home. And then Cheeon attempts to make good on it.
The viciousness of the picture will be off-putting to some, but along with the performances, it is the strongest aspect. These moments of catch-and-release tension, when the pack feeds, show the craft with which Saulnier can build a sequence that is absolutely flooring, and the aforementioned standoff is the centerpiece of the movie that he is unable to top. It captures the messy fear of being in a fire fight so well that the pretensions around much of the rest of the picture fall more tangibly flat. Each scene is confidently constructed with a clear vision, but it is questionable whether Saulnier and Macron Blair’s screenplay offers a sight many audiences will want to look at.
Keough is affectingly haunted, like a summer wind chime left to freeze over a long winter, and Wright is compelling just rambling over technobabble (watch Westworld Season 2 for proof). Plus, between this and Big Little Lies, Skarsgård has effectively transitioned from heroic roles to being the small screen’s most unnerving psychopath. But the whole piece is truly aided by John Badge Dale, who plays the threatened sheriff and the only major character who acts something akin to an actual human for much of the film’s running time. Whereas everyone else is breaking before the elements, the “everyman” character becomes the odd one out, providing a sense of rationality in an irrational setting that’s a long way from Anchorage. So you can take a guess on his odds.
The movie is handsomely mounted and so effectively executed that I am confident there is an audience who will embrace its obtuseness. Yet, unlike Green Room, I am left mixed on the choice of having shined a light into this enigmatic dark.
Hold the Dark premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12 and premieres on Netflix on Sept. 28.