The title of Jeremy Saulnier’s new film, based on the celebrated novel of the same name by William Giraldi, sounds like an inside joke: If there’s one thing this talented but severely heavy-handed filmmaker doesn’t do, it’s skimp on darkness. With Hold the Dark, Saulnier seems determined to top the oppressive hopelessness of Blue Ruin and Green Room, and he ably succeeds, fashioning a nightmare of inexplicable violence set against the brutal nightly terrain of the Alaskan wilderness. But there’s a thin line in Hold the Dark between inexplicable and fashionably incoherent.
For 30 minutes or so, before the film collapses into an ultraviolent, quasi-allegorical muddle, Saulnier holds your attention. He’s a prodigious orchestrator of mood, and Hold the Dark‘s deserted, snow-marked vistas, populated by miserable humans and gorgeous white wolves, are haunting. It’s also a pleasure to see Jeffrey Wright, normally seen by Hollywood as a character actor, promoted to center stage. As Russell Core, a writer and tracker and hunter of wolves, Wright exudes a commanding aura of sensitive manliness, and Saulnier wisely lingers for many moments on the actor’s wrenching face. Core is a more eco-friendly Ahab: a hunter who respects his prey and only kills when it’s paramount to his own survival. There’s a great moment early in the film when Core faces a wolf, which might’ve made off with three of the local town’s children, and can’t bring himself to fire. No wonder. The animal is majestic, suggestive of a god made physical.
The mother of one of the disappeared children, Medora Slone (Riley Keough), has brought Core to this town, asking that he kill the wolf who took her son. It’s clear from the outset, however, that Medora isn’t to be trusted herself, as she speaks in cryptic, noir-ish platitudes and presents herself nude to Core while wearing a wooden wolf mask. We’re initially led to believe that Hold the Dark will unfold as a traditional survivalist tale, with Core matching wits with the wolves out in the deadly cold woods, but the first act concludes with a twist that steers the film into unsettling and baffling terrain.
Throughout the early portions of the narrative, there are hints that Saulnier is pursuing ambitious thematic game. Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), is said to be fighting in the war in the Middle East, which is almost always a sign in a contemporary film of an oncoming metaphor. Saulnier breaks from the Alaskan setting to show Vernon in the desert, unceremoniously mowing down faceless people. The point of the scene is inescapable: This is a man hardened by war, just as the superstitious Alaskan townspeople are hardened by their own austere surroundings. These parallels converge when Vernon returns home and goes on a killing spree, and it’s precisely at this point that Hold the Dark falls irrevocably apart.
Narratively, the film’s wolves are a misdirection, a symbol of humankind’s propensity for savagery. Medora killed her own son, for reasons that Saulnier can’t be bothered to elucidate, just as he isn’t interested in explaining why Vernon, hearing of Medora’s monstrous act, decides to systematically murder the town’s police department. Saulnier sees this carnage as an illustration of the madness of an America at perpetual war, with Vernon suggesting a fusion of Michael Myers and John Rambo, and this vague political allusion is meant to take the place of character motivation. Saulnier is a wizard with violence, staging sequences that are tactile and upsetting, particularly a shoot-out between the police and Vernon’s accomplice, Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), which visually echoes the killing that Vernon committed while on duty in the Middle East. But shards of violence and nihilistic dialogue aren’t enough on their own. Giving the audience no clue as to Medora and Vernon’s desires, the film becomes a catalogue of stuff merely happening.
Hold the Dark‘s ludicrous seriousness comes to feel like a mask for what’s essentially a genre story of murder and mayhem—think Wind River with a more convoluted horror-movie vibe. As in his other films, Saulnier is very determined here for the audience to grasp his artistry, as he’s formally over-emphatic where he’s narratively inscrutable. A light, casual, or spontaneous moment or detail is unthinkable in a Saulnier film, though at least Blue Ruin and Green Room had a sense of narrative propulsion. At 125 minutes, Hold the Dark is a lugubrious alternation of damning whispers and lurid gore that quickly devolves from compelling to interminable to actively assaultive. One suspects that Saulnier might take that observation as a compliment.