“Hold the Dark” Is a Revenge Epic That’s Not Quite What It Seems

Midway through Hold the Dark, a gun battle breaks out. That between a disgrunt resident of a rural Alaskan settlement and the local police. What starts out as a siege turns into a spectacle. That with automatic weapons blazing, cars exploding, and blood flying in every direction.

It’s the kind of showdown that would provoke instant national attention in real life. But in the world of the director Jeremy Saulnier, it’s just another day in America. The film cuts from this carnage to two of its participants drinking wine and collecting themselves afterward, chatting. As if they just had a tough day at the office.

Saulnier, who directed the wonderfully nightmarish thrillers Blue Ruin and Green Room, has a vision of America. That can be starkly brutal. Blue Ruin is a simple revenge narrative, in which a long-standing grudge erupts into a new cycle of killing. While Green Room follows a pitch struggle between a punk band and a group of neo-Nazis after a concert.

Hold the Dark is something different, a tale with a sense of grandeur and mythic scale. Set in the frozen expanses of Alaska, it’s loaded with gorgeous, frightening imagery of a country at its wildest. But there isn’t enough sensible plotting to ground the film in reality.

Based on William Giraldi’s 2014 novel (and written by Saulnier’s frequent collaborator Macon Blair)

Hold the Dark is another ostensible story of revenge and death, at least at first. Medora Sloane (play by Riley Keough) is a mother living in a small Alaskan town who lost her son to a pack of wolves. She writes to Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a celebrate author with a profess expertise on the animals, asking for his help. Core, for some reason, takes her up on the request and flies out to the remote village. Where he’s greet by a traumatize, somnambulant Medora. Things quickly take a strange turn as Core realizes the woman is not quite what she seems.

Running parallel to this thread are scenes involving Medora’s husband. Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier deploy to Afghanistan. After he’s wounded in the line of duty, Vernon returns home. There, he begins to chart his own vengeful path, searching for Medora (who eventually goes missing herself). And, perhaps, the wolf pack that she was initially after.

Following the aforemention confrontation with the cops, a police officer name Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) is drawn into this mess. As is a community of Yup’ik natives with its own mysterious ties to the case. Even if I were willing to spoil the rest of the film’s plot, I’m not sure I could properly unpack all of it.

Hold the Dark begins with an odd enough setup, given that a middle-age author doesn’t seem like the best person to contract as a wolf hunter.

The movie then switches to high-octane action, before becoming something truly surreal. There are hints of a deeper, darker connection between Medora and Vernon. That would have bizarre implications for their child. Similarly, there are vague allusions to the community’s spiritual relationship with the natural world (particularly with the Arctic wolf packs). But they’re only glancingly explore.

Hold the Dark notably includes Yup’ik characters, who are so rarely seen in film. And one major character is play by the Canadian First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope. But they all feel peripheral to a story focus on the Sloane family.

Wright and Badge Dale are talent enough to hold the drama together, for the most part.

Blair’s screenplay is so light on plot specifics that their haunt facial expressions are just about the only thing that make sense. Their characters are also the only ones in the film that resemble real people. Everyone else seems to exist more as symbols.

Vernon disrupts every community he finds, sometimes wearing a wooden tribal mask (for reasons that are never made clear). Keough, an incredible performer who shone in recent films such as American Honey and Logan Lucky. That is especially waste, largely vanishing from the action after the movie’s opening act.

Saulnier’s skill shines during the big showdowns; he can make the most stylize scenes feel grimly realistic. The gun battle in the middle of the movie is his largest-scale set piece yet, and he manages to communicate the complex geography of the standoff very cleanly. There are moments in Hold the Dark, none of them directly relate to the plot, that are just as unsettling and searing as the best moments of Blue Ruin and Green Room. Still, the film never coheres outside of those flashes, ultimately delivering a disappointing, confusing, but undeniably fascinating experience.

INFO:

Rating: NR
Genre: Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale
Written By: Macon Blair
On Disc/Streaming: Sep 28, 2018
Runtime: 125 minutes
Studio: Netflix

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR HOLD THE DARK:

Brad Newsome
A grim, unsettling and ultimately forgettable Netflix horror flick that has a surprisingly high daytime body count for something that takes place mostly in the dark night of the Alaskan winter.

David Sims
The film never coheres outside of those flashes, ultimately delivering a disappointing, confusing, but undeniably fascinating experience.

Barry Hertz
It makes for intriguing and often gripping viewing, but delivers a more confounding experience than is necessary.

Kevin Maher
[Hold the Dark] strives to depict, with unflinching sincerity, the imbalance and upset in the natural order that arises from the murder of innocents. It’s harrowing, but strangely beautiful too.

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