Jeremy Saulnier has been quietly establishing himself as one of the most talented independent filmmakers for several years now. His witty horror comedy debut Murder Party was followed by 2013's intense revenge thriller Blue Ruin, which demonstrated his skill at combining a dark and compelling character drama with often upsetting violence. The stakes were raised even higher by 2015's brilliant, savage punk rock siege movie Green Room, and while some fans were disappointed that he ultimately dropped out of helming all of True Detective Season 3, the bleak, ambitious Netflix movie Hold the Dark will further his reputation.
The film is based on William Giraldi's 2014 novel, with a screenplay by Saulnier's regular collaborator Macon Blair. It's set in the small town of Keelut, deep in the Alaskan wilderness, where young mother Medora Slone (Riley Keough) is coming to terms with the the abduction of her child by a pack of wolves. This is the latest in a series of wolf attacks on the town's children, so she contacts renowned wolf expert and writer Russell Core (Westworld's Jeffrey Wright) to track and kill the animal that took her child. Meanwhile, her husband Vernon (a terrifying Alexander Skarsgård) is serving in Iraq, but an injury sends him home, where a dark, bloody reckoning over the death of his son is inevitable.
Saulnier is a master at establishing mood. From the the moment Core arrives in Keelut, we know something is very wrong--something unspoken--and that things are not what they seem. The sparse script and Keough and Wright's underplayed performances add to the unease. These are people who are clearly not used to talking much, and the long silences that accompany their initial encounters deftly create the sense that something very bad is about to happen. Core sets out into the wilderness to track the wolves, but it's what he discovers when he returns after that first day that really kickstarts the plot.
While both Blue Ruin and Green Room were small scale, claustrophobic thrillers that used limited casts and locations to tell simple stories, Hold the Dark is a far bigger, more ambitious project. The arrival of Vernon around the 30 minute mark quickly expands what initially seemed like a simple movie. The cast widens to include the superstitious locals and the neighboring police force, and Saulnier takes us beyond the boundaries of Keelut to explore this entire region. The stunning cinematography and droning music help create an environment that is unforgiving and almost otherworldly. And while nothing actually supernatural happens, at times Hold the Dark feels like a horror movie, as Medora tells Core about the terrifying darkness that lurks in the wilderness and the local people talk of possession by wolves.
Saulnier refrains from explaining too much and the movie is steeped in ambiguity; because of the sparse dialogue we are often left to try work out the character motivations through their actions rather than words. In the case of Vernon, a terrifying, vengeful father who can only express himself through violence, this is not always easy. There are hidden, unspoken secrets that are hinted at but never fully expanded on, and the ending is far from the tidy resolution expected from a more conventional thriller.
That's not to say Hold the Dark is always a slow-paced, open-ended mystery. Saulnier might like his narrative ambiguity, but he also loves to deliver visceral action. Fans of his previous movies won't be surprised to learn that this new one contains some of the most shocking scenes of violence you'll see this year; Saulnier never revels in the gore and much of it is quickly cut, but the sudden, random way that the most brutal violence erupts keeps things tense throughout. Most notably, there is a harrowing, brilliantly-directed shoot-out sequence in the middle of the movie, in which a team of inexperienced cops are pinned down by an adversary with a machine gun.
Hold the Dark is a mysterious, uncompromising movie that won't be for everyone. It's very dark--there is little humor, and with the exception of Jame Badge Dale's police chief Donald, the bleak tone keeps us from feeling much sympathy for even the "good guys," let alone Skarsgård's psychotic Vernon and his accomplices. The violence is strong and the movie leaves as many questions as it starts with. But for those who like their thrillers to provoke and challenge as well as thrill, it's an impressive achievement that won't be quickly forgotten.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Stunningly shot and directed||Very violent|
|Strong performances||Deliberately ambiguous|
|Gripping action||Very bleak, with little humor|