Filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier isn’t afraid of the darkness that lies within a human being’s heart. Each of his movies has been bleak, yet offbeat in their own ways. His latest film, “Hold the Dark,” also traffics in this territory. It is larger in scale than what he has done in the past, but the themes remain similar. Again, Saulnier has some shocking violence, but he has also crafted a mystery that holds your attention. There’s a shadow of the unknown and tragic that hangs over it all. “Hold the Dark” runs a little longer than it needs to, but it’s certainly another worthy entry within Saulnier’s oeuvre. As always, you just need to be able to stomach some surprising violence.
After “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” one could be forgiven for having expected something with the word Red in the title. However, Saulnier and his frequent collaborator Macon Blair have instead adapted a book. Clearly, “Hold the Dark” as a novel fit into what the director likes to explore, so it was an easy match. There’s an element of revenge at play here, which also has been something Blair and Saulnier often explore. Seriously, if you were thinking of a team to adapt this novel, this duo would be who you’d approach.
When a trio of children is abducted in a small Alaskan town, wolves are the suspected culprits. The children are presumed dead, though that doesn’t stop one mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough), from trying to get answers about what happened to her six year old. She sends a letter to writer Russell Core (Geoffrey Wright), summoning him to Alaska. Medora wants Russell to kill the wolf that murdered her boy. He says he’ll do what he can, but what he discovers is anything but a simple tragedy. Soon, Medora has disappeared, with word of the boy’s death reaching her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier overseas in the Middle East. He quickly returns home, with vengeance on his mind.
All of that begins a race against time. Vernon is looking for Medora, while Russell and police officer Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) try to get to either of them before something worse happens. Of course, there’s much more to it. There are old traditions, modern struggles, a high body count, and a sense that anyone could be killed at any time. The more we see of Vernon, the more dangerous he seems, even if he’s clearly in pain over the loss of his child. The mystery of Medora looms large over all of the characters, for different reasons. It all builds to a climax that doesn’t leave you with any easy answers.
Though Geoffrey Wright is ostensibly the protagonist of “Hold the Dark,” we also spend a lot of time with Alexander Skarsgård. Wright is the moral center of the film, very much the logical brain. Skarsgård is the emotional heart, raging out. Both are compelling portraits that couldn’t be more different. The only similarity is that they are quieter characters. Their backstories are never fully filled in, and rightly so. You get the sense that no one truly knows these people. Neither is as large as Patrick Stewart in “Green Room,” but they’re both very effective.
If there’s a disappointment in “Hold the Dark,” acting-wise, it’s that Riley Keough is underutilized here. She’s solid but doesn’t get enough to do. James Badge Dale does manage to rise above his somewhat stock role, putting forward another good person into a cast that could use that. Also in the cast are the likes of Julian Black Antelope, Tantoo Cardinal, Beckham Crawford, and more. Everyone does their part, though they don’t leave much in the way of lasting impressions.
Director Jeremy Saulnier and scribe Macon Blair stay true to themselves here. The themes of “Hold the Dark” are consistent with what they’ve built their careers on. Blair’s screenplay and Saulnier’s direction embraces the coldness of Alaska. The same goes for composers Brooke Blair and Will Blair, along with cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Interestingly, Saulnier pulls off a nice little sleight of hand, slowly changing the genre without ever having one moment to showcase the switch. As always though, his handle of gore and violence is top notch. Nothing is as over the top as “Green Room,” but one signature moment is legitimately surprising. Moreover, the central mystery holds your interest. You legitimately want to solve it alongside the characters. Had he paced this film a little better, it might have been his best one yet. As such, this is still very good but falls just shy of being great.
Provided you’ve enjoyed Saulnier’s previous flicks, “Hold the Dark” should again tickle your dark fancy. This is one of the better titles to be put out by Netflix, so their involvement is no sign of low quality. In fact, quite the opposite. This will get his movie out to the widest audience yet. It’s a shame this was one of the films that didn’t wind up screening at the Cannes Film Festival, due to all that hubbub. Regardless, it’s coming your way now and is well worth the wait.