Back in 2013, Jeremy Saulnier reinvented the revenge film with Blue Ruin. Two years later, he flipped the monster movie on its head in Green Room. Bringing a cineaste’s eye to classic genres and somehow making them feel fresh again, Saulnier has proven himself to be one of the most exciting low-fi filmmakers around – making his bigger budget Netflix debut all the more tantalising.
Swapping simple genre switches for a sprawling psychological opus that comes off more like a mini-series than a movie, Saulnier returns with his most ambitious, most interesting film to date.
Simultaneously paying homage to a dozen other titles and coming off unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, Hold The Dark is the kind of film that leaves scars – the sort of odd, grim, heady mix of new ideas that already feels like a classic. Saulnier’s finest? Probably. The best Netflix Original so far? Maybe.
Pinning down the plot is sort of irrelevant since the film takes so many U-turns, but the weirdness starts when an Alaskan mum (Riley Keough) hires a city-bound wildlife writer (Jeffrey Wright) to kill the wolf who ate her son. Things pretty much go off the rails from there – with Wright’s reluctant hunter out of his depth in a mess of local superstitions, Keough’s damaged soul looking for all kinds of awful ways to escape, James Badge Dale’s local cop fighting off rural gangs and Alexander Skarsgård’s psychopathic war vet stalking everybody else through the snow like something out of a John Carpenter movie.
Carpenter gets more than a few nods in Hold The Dark, as do Stephen King, Scorsese and the Coens – with the tone veering wildly and wonderfully from psychological horror and grindhouse thriller to black comedy and art-house drama. It’s a tough, bleak, nasty watch at times – and the frequent shift from quiet stillness to savage violence can be jarring (as with Saulnier’s other films, he isn’t exactly afraid to get dirty with the DIY gore), but the unsettling punches of brutality all add to the ugliness.
Not that Hold The Dark isn’t pretty to look at. Shot by Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (A Hijacking, A War), the film is gorgeous – with the snowy Alaskan wilderness shot like a western, giving Saulnier an open canvas to work on after the claustrophobia of Green Room. Still, the real meat of the film is pushed back into the small, dark spaces – bedrooms, caves and cars – with horror and menace creeping into every frame.
Keough and Skarsgård work perfectly in opposition to each other, the hunter and prey in an odd game that neither really knows why they’re playing, but it’s Wright who carries the weight of the film – melancholy, damaged and driven by the same kind of nihilistic sense of duty that hangs heavily over everything and leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Hold The Dark isn’t really meant to be enjoyed. It’s uneven and messy and bloated with ideas that will probably make you a bit uncomfortable. Saulnier tries out a dozen different B-movie genres for size and throws them all out, swerving the script in another direction as he goes. But it’s hard not to feel that this is how all films ought to be – reinventing, experimenting and flying in the face of every expectation to give us something we truly haven’t seen before.
Hold The Dark is streaming on Netflix from Friday.