Hold the Dark is the latest collaboration between director Jeremy Saulnier and actor-writer, Macon Blair. Previously, Saulnier and Blair have worked together on independent films Blue Ruin and Green Room. Horror fans have likely seen the lean survival thriller, Green Room. For the uninitiated, Blue Ruin is a beautiful and understated revenge film that you should be watching. The filmmakers premiered Hold the Dark at the Toronto International Film Festival. Now Netflix is exclusively streaming their latest joint effort.
Retired survivalist and wolf expert Russell Core travels to a small Alaskan village to investigate the disappearances of three children. Medora Stone, a mother of one of the missing children, claims that wolves dragged her son away into the woods. She lives on alone on the edge of the wilderness while her husband, Vernon, serves a tour of duty in Iraq. Medora pleads with Russell to kill the wolves so she will have something to show her husband when he returns. But as Russell spends more time with Medora, he slowly discovers a much darker truther. Vernon’s homecoming then sparks a violent descent into the dark Alaskan woods.
Hold The Dark Is and Is Not A Revenge Thriller
Saulnier is an extremely gifted filmmaker. Among his talents, Saulnier does not spin conventional tales, but instead twists familiar narratives into something compellingly different. On the surface, Hold the Dark looks like a dark revenge thriller. The Netflix trailer even teases a potential supernatural thread, which most certainly is not part of the movie. But Hold the Dark never follows any traditional revenge narrative.
But through all these narrative detours, Hold the Dark is always a movie more interested in mood than story.
Based on William Giraldi’s novel, Macon Blair’s adapted screenplay changes course at least twice in the movie. In essence, Hold the Dark is more strongly rooted in emotion than specific plot points. Russell and Medora’s mutual isolation initially draws them together before a chilling discovery takes the movie in a different direction. Arguably, Vernon’s return home and unexpected reaction to his son’s murder again radically pushes the movie in another direction. But through all these narrative detours, Hold the Dark is always a movie more interested in mood than story.
A Discomforting Mood Punctuated by Brutal Acts of Violence
Atmosphere and mood define much of Hold the Dark’s first half. Saulnier takes advantage of the dark, winter-set location to evoke a sense of unease. Like Jeffrey Wright’s Russell Core, viewers are likely to feel disoriented by the expansive nighttime wilderness that cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck captures in all its stunning glory. Hold the Dark is a moody film that opts to move slowly while allowing you to feel the character’s loneliness and sadness. In many ways, Hold the Dark feels like a spiritual sequel to Blue Ruin.
The violent set pieces are sparsely spread out, but filmed in a way that punctuates sustained moments of silent brooding.
When Saulnier picks up the action, it hits the viewer like a gunshot in the middle of the night. Viewers shouldn’t go into Hold the Dark expecting the ramped up action and violence found in Green Room. Saulnier sparsely spreads out the violent set pieces, but films them in a way that punctuates sustained moments of silent brooding. In addition, Saulnier films his violence in a very stripped-down manner. There’s no glorification through editing or camera trickery. Hold the Dark’s murders are brutal, sad, and shocking.
A Meditative Thriller That Perhaps Gets Lost In Its Own Ideas
Maybe the best description one could offer for Hold the Dark is that it’s a meditative thriller. And for much of the movie, it’s atmospheric brooding punctuating with moments of shocking violence works very well. Nonetheless, as the movie progresses, there is a feeling that the story is in a holding pattern, waiting to explode out of the gates.
When Hold the Dark approaches its climax, it again twists in an unexpected direction. Except this time the twist feels frustrating. Saulnier and Blair’s story feels like it’s almost obsessively mired in some existential crisis that requires ongoing reflection. It makes for a thought-provoking conclusion, but a dissatisfying movie experience. Even the performances feel subdued. Jeffrey Wright, Riley Keough, and Alexander Skarsgard all deliver excellent performances. In particular, Jeffrey Wright demonstrates again why more filmmakers should be casting him in their projects. He conveys a weary loneliness with just facial expressions and tone.
Hold the Dark May Prove Dissatisfying for Some Audiences
Hold the Dark is such an atmospheric and beautifully shot film that it’s hard to call it disappointing. On the one hand, Saulnier has crafted another meditative thriller that is utterly engaging. Yet this time around, it does feel like Saulnier let Hold the Dark slip into unsatisfying existential navel-gazing in its final act. One can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the closing moments. Even in a movie that defies classification, Hold the Dark ends with the sense that something was missing.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL: B