With his last two features, Blue Ruin and Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier has become one of genre’s best filmmakers, operating with a duel-edged sword of brutal violence and unbearable tension. Now Saulnier finds himself on the world’s largest streaming service with Hold the Dark, an adaptation of the novel by William Girardi. While Hold the Dark isn’t as enrapturing as his previous two films, it is still a brutal, tense journey through the snow into the heart of darkness.
Medora Sloane (Riley Keough) is living in a small Alaskan village with her son Bailey (Beckam Crawford) while her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) is serving in the military in the Middle East. One fateful day, a lone wolf from the nearby wilderness takes Bailey from just outside his home. In her desperation and depression, Medora reaches out to Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who has studied wolves extensively and written a book on the subject. Russell flies out to Alaska and he meets the grieving mother who asks that he tracks down and kills the wolf that killed her son. But Russell’s journey into the snow-covered wilderness uncovers deep dark secrets hidden in the icy Alaskan town.
Now I’m not going to traverse into spoiler territory here, but it’s worth nothing that for various reasons, Medora runs and goes into hiding as Vernon returns from his military duty. As the husband seeks out his wife on the run, Russell Core teams up with the local deputy Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) to find the missing couple. With everything that is going on, it seems as if an evil spirit has been resurrected in the snowy forests of the great north as blood is shed and bodies pile up.
The kind of existential dread that is at the heart of Hold the Dark and the screenplay adaptation by Macon Blair does prevent Saulnier from crafting his typically straightforward violent thrillers. There are questions that constantly swirl around the mind as the events of Hold the Dark unfold, and it’s that ambiguity combined with an overwhelming sense of evil’s presence that garners the most terror. The violence on display amidst the majesty of the wintry locales capture brilliantly by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck create a fascinating juxtaposition between natural beauty and manmade brutality. However, there’s a certain distance that Saulnier’s film keeps from its characters that makes it hard to connect with any of them with the exception of Jeffrey Wright’s Russell Core, who serves as the audience’s perspective of these confounding and horrific events.
While I didn’t find Hold the Dark to capture the sheer tension of, say, Green Room, it does have one sequence that is stunning in its construction and absolutely ghastly in its violence. The Native American Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) is holed up in his little wooden home when a gang of deputies come knocking at his door. He’s been expecting them. The standoff doesn’t last long before Cheeon unleashes a barrage of bullets on the assembled police officers. The scene is harrowing and intense in a way that presents the audience with a flurry of gunfire and the grisly aftermath that never revels in the bloodshed, but brings forth the abject terror of gun violence at its worse. While Hold the Dark doesn’t maintain this level of tension and terror throughout, this one particular sequence highlights why Jeremy Saulnier is a modern master of tension and suspense.
Hold the Dark ranks as a minor disappointment, but that’s only because Saulnier set the bar so high with Green Room and Blue Ruin. At the same time, it sees one of the best young filmmakers working today expanding his canvas, attempting a movie on a larger scale and tackling a different form of brutal violence. The terror at the heart of Hold the Dark is different than what Saulnier had previously brought to the screen, because it’s easier to understand the violent nature of neo-Nazis as opposed to an unexplained, mystical form of evil that operates without a thorough explanation. Aspects of Hold the Dark are captivating and horrifying while other aspects of the film are just plain confounding. This is a bitter, brutal pill to swallow. Whether or not it goes down for you depends on whether or not you can handle what Saulnier offering, because it ain’t for everybody.
Hold the Dark
While featuring some absolutely brutal cinematic violence, Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark doesn’t quite maintain the tension of the director’s previous films but offers a bitter pill of a movie that takes viewers deep into the heart of darkness in the Alaskan wild.