Hold the Dark (2018)
Retired naturalist and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) heads to the remote, wintry fastness of Alaska when he receives a letter from Medora Slone (Riley Keough), saying that her young son has been taken by wolves. She wants him to hunt and kill the beasts responsible. He wants to learn what he can about the events and perhaps offer some kind of closure. Things are complicated when Medora’s soldier husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a man with a prodigious gift for savage violence, returns from deployment in the Middle East, determined to uncover a reason for his son’s death.
Adapted from William Giraldi’s literary thriller of the same title, screenwriter Macon Blair, Small Crimes (2017), and director Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark is a bleak, stripped-down meditative affair that has more than a few points of comparison with the works of author Cormac McCarthy in general, and the Coen Brothers’ big screen version of No Country for Old Men (2007) in particular (‘Snow Country for Old Men’ has been bandied about the internet a bit — ho ho, very droll). Both films pit a resourceful, taciturn man against a seemingly unstoppable killing machine. Both are set in harsh, inhospitable environs. Both are laconic to the point of stillness, and both truck in ambiguity, refusing to settle for neat, pat endings.
Saulnier’s film, though, is markedly more violent than the Coens,’ with bodies littering the tundra by the time the credits roll. Throats are slit, men are shot, stabbed, impaled and worse, and in one standout sequence, a small army of police officers are cut to ribbons with a machine gun. That’s only fitting, seeing as the film’s clear aim is to explore the dividing line between the human and the bestial, with Vernon on one side and Core on the other. While the four-footed kind are in plentiful supply here, the most prominent wolves in Hold the Dark are metaphorical — human animals who have shed the trappings of civilization to cleave to a more bestial way of being.
Saulnier’s previous works have been tight, contained affairs — Green Room (2015), for example, is largely set in a backblocks skinhead nightclub — but here he’s working with a much wider frame, setting his action against the vast and dangerous Alaskan wilderness, beautifully and hauntingly captured by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, Bridgend (2015). The effect, however, is just as constraining, although not as claustrophobic; his characters here are trapped not by walls or barriers, but by the incredibly treacherous land itself, a place where the slightest mistake can lead to a quick but painful death.
Hold the Dark’s Alaska is as socially hostile an environment as it is physically — the tiny hamlet of Keelut, where much of the action transpires, is a weird interstitial place between the settled lands to the west and the fearsome wilderness of the interior populated by a mix of Caucasians and Indigenous Americans (notably, Wright’s Russell Core, an interloper and our point-of-view character, is the only black person we see in the film, if memory serves). The tension between the different factions is palpable, coming to a head in a confrontation between local cop Marium (James Badge Dale) and resentful Indigenous hunter Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), but more importantly, the culture here is unknown to us. We’re not privy to the customs of this place, its rituals, its secrets — and those secrets are deadly and horrifying.
It’s not giving too much away to say that the situation as presented initially is not what it seems, and the film cants away from its stated premise fairly early on in the proceedings. Hold the Dark is a mystery, but the question is not whodunnit so much as why. The journey to that answer is a grim slog punctuated with catastrophic violence and moments of absolute horror, but our guide is a reliable one. If you’ve got the stomach, this is a trip worth taking.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson