HOLD THE DARK

★★★

Empire (UK) - - TV & STREAMING - Alex God­frey

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. It’s tough.

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.

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