[This is a repost of my review from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Hold the Dark is now available on Netflix.]
I was a big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s last two movies, Blue Ruin and Green Room. He’s a clever filmmaker who’s able to go to some extremely dark and bleak places and come out with something visceral and haunting. His latest movie, Hold the Dark, once again takes him and his audience to some disturbing places, but this time there’s no reward to be found. Unlike Blue Ruin’s somber mediation on revenge or the unrelenting pressure cooker presented by Green Room, Hold the Dark gets lost in its metaphors and coldhearted characters. The movie tips its head to saying something about savagery, evil, and how mankind is the most pitiless predator, but the story exists in such a surreal space that none of its violent actions have any weight beyond shock value.
Set in the Alaskan wilderness, the movie has Medora Slone (Rliey Keough) writing to author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) after wolves took her son. Medora believes her son is already dead, but wants Russell, who spent a year among the wolves and has killed them in the past, to kill the wolf that took her son. Russell takes the job, although it quickly becomes clear that Medora is not simply the grieving mother she appears to be. Meanwhile, the boy’s father, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), is returning home from war after being wounded in combat. His arrival signals a combustible mixture as it appears that much darker forces are at work.
The first half of Hold the Dark appears to be headed somewhere despite the strange behavior of Medora, Vernon, and the surrounding Native American people in their isolated community. It appears the Saulnier is seizing upon unnatural acts of man and contrasting them to the wild. Core comes across wolves eating a cub, but later notes that the act, know as savagery, is not uncommon among animals when resources are scarce. Meanwhile, in the human world, we witness horrific acts like revenge (or at least the revenge Medora claims she wants), rape, and murder. It seems like Saulnier wants to go down a path of questioning what, if anything, separates men from beasts.
But as the film rolls along and there are hints of something vaguely supernatural (in a cringeworthy cliché, the Native American characters have to stand in to provide mentions of evil spirits), but nothing concrete as if Saulnier wants to signal that there’s no external force, only the evil inherit in mankind. However, without any clear motivations, he fails to provide us with an entry to point characters like Medora, Vernon, and Vernon’s friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope). These characters do horrific things, and while it could be argued that their lack of a clear motivation makes them more terrifying, it also makes them less interesting. They just become these big old weirdoes in the Alaskan wilderness.
Again, one could argue that this is the point—to make a movie about the darkness in humanity by showing people who lack humanity. But within the surreal tone Saulnier creates, there’s nothing to really latch onto. The Alaskan frontier is beautiful and otherworldly, and the juxtaposition of the natural world against unnatural acts is powerful, but it doesn’t seem to add up to much of anything. Does watching a brutal massacre in the middle of this movie get me anywhere I need to be? Does it tell me about the characters? Or is it a half-baked idea about how “civilized” society deserves some form of retribution?
There will be some who are taken by the puzzle box aspect of Hold the Dark and become eager to piece together its fractured themes, suffocating subtext, and grim demeanor. But for me, it’s a tedious and disappointing affair, showcasing the darkness and violence of Saulnier’s previous movies, but none of the verve or immediacy. Hold the Dark is as cold and distant as its setting, and rather than braving the environment, it will just probably send you looking for warmth.