Hold the Dark distinguishes itself from Jeremy Saulnier’s work, not through its lack of violence (it has plenty of that) but through Saulnier’s more controlled, calculated approach to ambiguous narrative storytelling.
Synopsis: Retired naturalist and wolf expert Russell Core journeys to the edge of civilization in northern Alaska at the pleading of Medora Slone, a young mother whose son was killed by a pack of wolves. As Core attempts to help Medora track down the wolves who took her son, a strange and dangerous relationship develops between the two lonely souls. But when Medora’s husband Vernon returns home from the Iraq War, the news of his child’s death ignites a violent chain of events. As local cop, Donald Marium, races to stop Vernon’s vengeful rampage, Core is forced on a perilous odyssey into the heart of darkness. (Netflix)
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, and Riley Keough
Writer: Macon Blair
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Running Time: 125mins
The film is set in the remote and desolate wilderness of Alaska, which Saulnier uses as a character itself to explore the mystical, lonely lives of those who call it their home. These people are survivors, they live off their own instincts in the barren wilderness – when Russel (Wright) mentions that his daughter is a teacher in Anchorage, a glassy-eyed Medora (Keough) tells him, “that city is not Alaska” – these survival traits function as an archetypal man vs. nature story, however Saulnier explores something much more supernatural and cryptic.
Russell is a former naturalist wolf expert who journeys to Alaska after Medora claims that her son has been taken by a pack of wolves. She seeks revenge (a common Saulnier theme) and wants Russell to hunt down the pack of wolves. Meanwhile her husband, Vernon (a mostly mute Skarsgard), is serving a tour in Iraq. Saulnier cuts from the stark wilderness just once, and shows us that Vernon is a man with his own unclear moral compass. When Vernon returns home after he is injured on duty the movie starts to reveal its labyrinthe of confusing demonic indications.
The story is viewed from the perspectives of Russell and Vernon, the former being an aged natural expert riddled with regret and a deeper sorrow, the latter of a man wrestling with his own grip on humanity – the film can be viewed as a commentary on PTSD stricken individuals releasing their inner demons, abandoned by the majority of civilization. By far, this was the most captivating fragment of the film, as the story itself leaves much to be desired. Hold the Dark may have lot of merits going for it, but unfortunately it is Saulnier’s least accessible and unsatisfying work.
The second half picks up with an enthralling shootout in the Alaskan village of Keelut, showcasing Saulnier’s controlled handle on moments of extreme violence, however the story dipped into waters too murkey for its own good. Vernon’s lust for bloodshed turns the story into a mystery body-count thriller, with police officers and innocent people alike dropping like flies to thrust the plot into an ambiguously mystic tale that was hard to grasp onto. Saulnier decides to leave the audience contemplating the choices made and the demonic horrors that lurk beneath the winterized frontier; leaving remnants for the audience to decipher with what feels like a lack of solid information to process.
Overall, Hold the Dark is an ambiguous Alaskan thriller that bites off more than it can chew. The film works when moments of random violence eschews the survival tropes of our tired characters, however key story points and an unsatisfying ending leave us as cold and confused as the characters that inhabit the desolate location.