Hold the Dark movie review: A stone-cold gem you must unearth from Netflix’s bowels
Hold the Dark
Director - Jeremy Saulnier
Cast - Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough
Rating - 4/5
In an early scene in director Jeremy Saulnier’s new film, Hold the Dark, we see pack of wolves feasting on a carcass. It’s shot from a slight distance so little is discernible from the mess of blood and guts, warm and stark against the Alaskan snow. It’s only later that we’re told the wolves had been eating one of their own; a pup, in fact.
This is rare, Russell tells us. Russell is a retired naturalist, who’d been tasked with tracking down the wolves; he’s played by Jeffrey Wright. We learn that wolves are known to sacrifice their pups when the survival of the pride is at stake. Russell says this almost reverentially. He believes that this is the natural order of things, and, “The natural order doesn’t warrant revenge.”
But revenge is what Russell was summoned for. A young mother, alone in a remote Alaskan village of perhaps only a dozen inhabitants, has called him to help track down the wolves that took her child. The six-year-old Bailey is one of three children who have been taken by wolves. The villagers had taken precautions after the first one was lost - they’d arranged for someone to escort the kids to school, someone to be stationed at the locations where wolves had been sighted, and yet, they lost two more.
Watch the Hold the Dark trailer here
Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough (the grandchild of Elvis Presley), knows that her son isn’t coming back. She tells Russell that she doesn’t expect to bury a body, but the least she can do for her husband - away on duty in the Iraq war - is to present him with the body of the wolf that took Bailey.
Begrudgingly, Russell accepts the job - not for money, but perhaps out of the kindness of his heart. His motivations - first to answer Medora’s call and then to agree to the mission - are enigmatic, because very few characters in the film show any sort of decency at all. Hold the Dark is an unrelentingly dour film, populated by terrible people who do despicable things.
Such is the intensity of the plot that it becomes difficult to form any sort of bond with the film’s many protagonists, who, to make matters more challenging, the film switches after every act. We’re lead to believe that Russell is our surrogate in this strange, almost mystical land, but only until Medora’s husband (Alexander Skarsgard) returns from war. And then there’s the police chief, played by James Badge Dale. It’s a film about three men, fighting to be the alpha.
We’re all beasts inside, the film philosophises. Our true nature presents itself when we’re confronted by difficulties. That opening scene was meant to function as a metaphor.
Hold the Dark is the latest film by Saulnier, a blazingly natural filmmaker whose stark plots reveal us to be the easily corruptible souls that we are. You might have seen his exceptional revenge drama, Blue Ruin, or his claustrophobic spin on the torture porn genre, Green Room, in which he had the bright idea of casting Sir Patrick Stewart as the leader of a Neo-Nazi gang of skinheads. He’s directing multiple episodes of the third season of HBO’s True Detective next, and based simply on his mastery of tone and command over his characters, he’s the perfect man for the job. Hold the Dark wrestles with some of the same themes that the first season of True Detective did - man vs nature, vengeance and nihilism.
This is probably the biggest scale he’s ever worked on - and it’s a natural progression for a director who’s at his most effective when making contained thrillers marked with brutal bursts of violence, but is raring to bite into something bigger next. Hold the Dark isn’t an easy watch - if the dourness doesn’t get you, the violence will - but it’s gripping. From the very first scene, it latches onto your neck and drags you, despite your protests, to where it wants you. And in its final moments, it goes in for the kill.
While it would appear that the film is headed towards a predictable conclusion - each of the its three strands seem to be headed on a collision course - Saulnier somehow manages to retain a level of unexpectedness. It seems that every 15 minutes, the movie delivers to the back of the viewers’ heads a blow so stunning that you’re left reeling until the next one arrives.
The biggest shock comes around the mid-way point, when a quiet conversation between two characters turns into a bloodbath, in a matter of minutes. It is one of the most brutal gunfights I’ve seen, and a great example of just how naturally gifted Saulnier is. Pay attention to the geography, the pacing, the individual character arcs - the action scene works as a short film.
Hold the Dark’s release on Netflix presents us once again with that great dilemma - one the one hand, to watch those majestic Alaskan landscapes and to be surrounded by the horror ambience would have been wonderful on a big screen, but on the other, this is probably the biggest audience Saulnier has ever been exposed to. And in the end, that’s what matters the most. For many, this would be their first brush with Saulnier’s filmmaking. This will impact not only his previous movies but also the ones he is yet to make.