There is so much to unpack in HOLD THE DARK that I fear not being able to properly break down my feelings and thoughts in a quick festival review, but here we go…
Alongside his frequent collaborator Macon Blair, Jeremy Saulnier is responsible for two of my favorite films of the last five years. But where BLUE RUIN and GREEN ROOM are efficiently told, pulpy stories where brutal action meshed neatly with character beats to thrilling and frightening results, HOLD THE DARK finds the increasingly confident filmmakers exploring the unsettling depths of mankind’s capacity for violence that is almost languid in its pacing. The results are less visceral thrills (with one notable scene being the exception) in favor of a far more intimate and unnerving multi-character study of men either born mad, driven mad by circumstances, or trying to keep the dark part of their souls at bay.
In a remote Alaskan village, wolves have snatched three children. Medora Slone (Riley Keough), the mother of the most recently taken child, contacts wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) in a desperate plea for him to kill the wolves who killed her son.
Since writing a book about spending a year living in the wilderness amongst wolves (which apparently included his having to kill one of the wolves in self defense), Core has become something of a hermit. Despite his insular nature, Slone’s heartfelt letter draws Core to the village where he tries to convince her that killing a wolf that was simply acting on its nature is not in line with what he sees as the natural order of things. Her response is that she has to show her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) that she did something to avenge their son’s death.
Core travels into the wilderness, rifle in tow. But he finds the pack of wolves so desperate for food that they have killed and are devouring one of their own pups. Determining that they could not have possibly eaten Medora and Vincent’s child recently, he returns to her home to find she has disappeared and the body of her son is in the basement, where he has been hidden since she strangled him, lying about the wolf story.
An American soldier in Iraq, Vernon is introduced coolly gunning down several men in a brief firefight before he witnesses a fellow soldier raping a local woman. Vernon calmly stabs the soldier before going back to finish the cigarette he had just lit. His reaction to both killings is the same indifference.
Wounded by a sniper, Vernon is sent home to the chaotic situation of his child dead and a manhunt under way for his wife. After thanking Core and local police Detective Marium (James Badge Dale) for their assistance, Vernon kills the rest of the policemen at the station, snatches the body of his son, and goes on the hunt for Medora. To say anymore about the plot would do a disservice to any potential viewers.
HOLD THE DARK is the first time that Saulnier and Blair (credited as the sole screenwriter) have adapted a novel. While I have not read the book by William Giraldi, the structure of the film feels very novel-like with a series of scenes gathered together as chapters exploring Vernon’s single-minded tracking down of Medora, Marium’s attempts to get to Medora before Vernon while also fearing what will happen to his pregnant wife if he is killed in the process, and Core’s slowly horrified realization that his belief that humans are possibly even more animalistic and cruel to each other than wild animals is correct.
Each story thread points back to the same idea that the laws of nature are far more predictable and relatively fair as compared to the laws of man. Unfortunately, nature dictates that the weak (whether physically or psychologically) will be sacrificed and consumed by the strong, and Vernon is a straight-ahead psychopath who is very, very strong. Living in the remote part of Alaska where the characters do, the laws of nature take priority, giving Vernon every advantage in his bloody mission. Marium represents the law of man and is further made vulnerable by his family connections. Core sees how a showdown between the two men would play out if they were to meet, but is powerless to stop it.
Since most of the film is shown from Core’s perspective, HOLD THE DARK takes on a very fatalistic tone that is all encompassing. Where BLUE RUIN and GREEN ROOM had moments of dark humor to act as a brief respite from the tension, HOLD THE DARK is unrelentingly grim. Aside from the occasional quiet scene between Marium and Core as they contemplate their attempts to be family men when they see the horrible evils that other men (and possibly themselves) are capable of committing, almost every other interaction in the film bristles with the potential for violence. The effect on the audience goes beyond suspense to the type of dread usually found in the most unsettling of horror films.
Saulnier has always had a gift for casting and getting great performances out of his actors. This film is no exception. Wright takes chances, giving Core such a mumbly, insular behavior that he threatens to just disappear from existence at times. Despite how unusual his performance, it works for the character. A person does not spend a year living with wolves if they are comfortable around other people. Skarsgård provides an enigmatic, disturbing presence. Vernon never seems to understand why he behaves the way he does, making him that much more frightening as a force of nature. Dale gives a real everyman likability to Marium and shines in a stunner of a sequence where he fights a losing battle trying to talk down Vernon’s friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope, excellent in three brief scenes) from a violent confrontation with police.
The film is so well-acted and shot (seriously, the snowy wilderness presented here is beautiful and so, so frightening) and the larger themes of man’s law versus nature’s law so deeply explored that Saulnier does seem at times to lose sight of smaller details. There is a heavy dose of Native American mythology running through the film that feels under-developed (especially in the way the mythology relates to Vernon’s and Medora’s actions), Medora largely disappears from the film after the first act, and Core becomes such an observer that he turns into too much of a passive protagonist at times. These issues prevent HOLD THE DARK from being the full masterpiece it had potential to become.
But masterpieces are rare. HOLD THE DARK is a brutal, upsetting, and almost incomparably bleak film. It is Saulnier’s biggest, most expansive work. Any growing pains associated with painting on a larger canvas are worth a film so horrifying in its dissection of every human being’s potential to revert to their primal state.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)
Tags: Alexander Skarsgård, Blue Ruin, Fantastic Fest 2018, Green Room, Hold The Dark, James Badge Dale, Jeffrey Wright, Jeremy Saulnier, Julian Black Antelope, Macon Blair, Riley Keough, William Giraldi