Release: Friday, September 28, 2018 (Netflix)
Written by: Macon Blair
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Jeffrey Wright; Alexander Skarsgård; James Badge Dale; Riley Keough; Julian Black Antelope; Beckam Crawford
Apparently with his latest film Hold the Dark indie sensation Jeremy Saulnier has lost the audience somewhat. I can see why. In terms both physical and emotional his Alaska-set mystery may be his coldest movie yet. He plunges us into an ice bath, a world where most of us do not belong — a world defined by hostility and populated by unfriendly and grizzled folk who add little comfort to proceedings. Add to that the fact the story doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” or good, clean payoff and you’ve got the recipe for an uncompromisingly strange and bleak experience.
I loved it though. I think. No, I definitely did. In my mind this is the epitome of everything the native Virginian is about when it comes to style and substance. His fourth feature film is also an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, so is it perhaps possible criticisms over narrative convolution and vexing moral turpitude could be applied to the source material too? I haven’t read the book of course, so I couldn’t say. However there is a new reality I need to address: this is the first time Saulnier has gone the way of an adaptation; it’s entirely possible he’s lost something in translation or perhaps the novel itself is one of those “Well, you can’t really adapt it because (such and such excuse).”
Hold the Dark plays host to dueling narratives, one focused upon a writer and veteran wolf tracker named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who’s summoned by a grieving mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough in a very strange turn), to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut to investigate the disappearance of her child — merely one of several thought to be the victims of hungry wolves. At this point she’ll settle with just having the body returned for to give it a proper burial. When he arrives in town however, things are not entirely what they seem and soon he finds himself in a fight for survival in a place where chaos reigns.
The second through-line adopts the perspective of Medora’s soldier hubby Vernon (a shit-your-britches scary Alexander Skarsgård), who, after being wounded in battle somewhere in the Middle East, returns to his frozen home town and to the grim news concerning his six-year-old son. After being picked up at the airport by his longtime friend and fellow father-in-mourning Cheeon (First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope) he goes to meet with local law enforcement, lead by the stoic and upstanding Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), and the coroner (Brian Martell), and . . . let’s just say the guy’s pretty hard to placate, even at this early stage. But then another development further twists the knife and carnage soon erupts in Keelut, threatening to tear apart the town and its inhabitants, some of whom hold an uncanny relationship with their icy environs, like the enigmatic Illanaq (played by Tantoo Cardinal, indigenous Canadian actress and Member of the Order of Canada).
Hold the Dark is as much a journey through grief and loss as it is a physical flirtation with the supernatural. The later movements in particular butt up against stuff that’s maybe not meant to be understood (what a cop-out line Tom). It’s a deliberately paced drama that becomes increasingly menacing — don’t let that midway-point daylight massacre fool you — and in which motives appear to be driven more by madness than rationale. That’s what really drew me in to the movie, the extremity of both environment and characters who, consistent with the Saulnier aesthetic, are desperate to do what it takes to survive. That element of desperation is elevated to an all-time high here, admittedly. The suffering is real, palpable. It’s certainly a film of extremes.
It’s also a total team effort. Saulnier gets plenty of help from the likes of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who captures the spirit of the wild in stunning and often savage detail, the editing provided by Julia Bloch will make you feel every bone crunch and every bullet piercing through leathery skin. And I’m not sure where we would be without this smartly chosen, chillingly effective cast (kudos to Avy Kaufman). Jeffrey Wright acquits himself wonderfully in a quiet, almost meditative lead performance — I’ve never viewed the guy as leading man material but clearly I’m mistaken. And I really enjoyed James Badge Dale as a beacon of decency trying to shine in this inhospitable spit of land.
With Hold the Dark Saulnier has created a truly singular experience, a snow-swept, blood-soaked Neo-western that pits the unpredictability of human behavior against the indiscriminate brutality of Mother Nature. Who is the real villain? Is there such a thing out here? Days later and I’m still having that debate with myself and I love that about this movie.
Moral of the Story: Hold the Dark is absolutely not a film that will gel with everyone — as I noted at the top of this review. It’s a heavy, maybe even depressing viewing experience that becomes almost about spiritual suffering. It customarily boasts excellent performances from a great cast. Screenwriter and frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair has an ear for natural albeit harsh dialogue, while Saulnier has yet again proven himself an auteur in the making.
Running Time: 125 mins.
Quoted: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”
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