HOLD THE DARK
DIRECTOR Jeremy Saulnier CAST Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, James Badge Dale
PLOT In the Alaskan wilderness, a grieving mother (Keough) hires a renowned student of wolves (Wright) to find the beast that likely killed her missing son. As the hunter begins to investigate, though, he finds much darker mysteries at play.
ALASKA IS NOT a happy place. The landscape is merciless and the locals are damaged. “Do you have any idea what’s outside those windows?” asks Keough’s Medora Slone at the start of Hold The
Dark. It’s a rhetorical question. “How black it gets,” she qualifies. “How it gets in you.” This is how she welcomes guests.
It’s winter in Keelut, an isolated village currently blessed with five hours of sunlight a day. Three children have recently been taken by wolves, including Medora’s six-year-old. With her husband Vernon (Skarsgård) fighting in Iraq, she hires wolf-whisperer/killer Russell Core (Wright) to find the guilty party. She doesn’t expect him to find her son alive, she says — she just wants that dead wolf, which will at least provide consolation.
Everything is wrong from the start. Medora is clearly not well. She’s grieving, yes, but does that explain her penchant for iron masks? Not so much. On his first trip into the snow, Russell witnesses a gang of wolves devouring one of their own. It’s all gone to pot out here, no mistake. On the one hand, this is a world away from Saulnier’s last film, the taut, bone-snapping Nazi-punk thriller Green Room, which provided instant thrills and spills. This is more minimalist, more poetic, more in line with his earlier Blue Ruin. Then again, gore comes quickly: two kills in Iraq by Vernon signify that neither he nor Saulnier are here to mess about, and further snatches of grindhouse recall Green Room’s ghoulish excesses. Pleasant it is not.
Adapted from William Giraldi’s esteemed novel by Blue Ruin and Green Room star Macon Blair, Hold The Dark is heavy on the symbolism; Keelut itself is named after a mythical, evil, hairless dog. And Saulnier doubles down on the mirrors, pitting primal behaviour against civilised order. There are more disturbing masks than Medora’s. The wolves are beautiful, the humans savage, the hearts dark. “We’re not talking about animals here,” Core is told at one point. “If you say so,” he shrugs.
Saulnier was planning this before Green Room was released, and you have to hand it to him for staying on course and not taking a cheap buck. This film is not a terrifically commercial proposition, and its meditative restraint — as much as that often crashes into some sizeable hardcore action — is somewhat stifling. It is certainly not formulaic, with little catharsis, and with even the warmer characters pretty cold, you’re kept at bay throughout.
As an artist, Saulnier does not have a sunny disposition, and this film has death in its bones. His world is ill. All of his films feel askew; all of them have you feeling consistently unsettled. Hold The Dark goes out of its way not to gratify. It is pure.
VERDICT Hold The Dark is rather unwell. Both intimate and epic, it is appropriately cold, resisting warmth at every turn, more a philosophical adventure than an emotional one.
There was no way they were finding that contact lens.