Hold the Dark
Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi’s 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere. You’d expect as much from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director pal Macon Blair (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) (the latter furnishes the screenplay and appearing in one scene). However, it’s contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you’re trying to achieve, but the effect here smacks rather “for the sake of it” than purposeful.
Jeffrey Wright’s wolf expert Core is called to the Alaskan village of Keelut by mother Medora (Riley Keough), whose son – the third child there to go missing – has been taken by wolves (“I do not expect you to find my son alive. But you could find the wolf who took him“). But Core quickly deduces that wolves weren’t responsible and opts not to take it out on the pack (“The natural order does not want revenge. What happened here is… very rare“).
Then he finds the boy’s body in cellar and that Medora has gone missing. We knew something wasn’t quite right with Medora, on account of how she appears naked in a wolf mask – a mask to ward off evil spirits – and gets into bed with him on his first night there. And how she comes out with slightly florid (over-written?) language to describe her relationship with hubby Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), currently serving in Iraq (“I don’t have a memory he isn’t in“).
Fortuitously, or perhaps not, Vernon has been injured (just after killing a soldier raping an Iraqi woman) and is sent home. He decides to track Medora down himself after being told her fate (“She’ll stand trial and she’ll get the needle“) and consequently killing two police officers. Why does Vernon take such an extreme course? Why does buddy Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) machine-gun massacre a shed load of cops a few scenes later (other than to provide Netflix with a grandstanding set piece in the middle of their movie)? If you’re looking for answers, you’ve come to the wrong place.
It appears that, whatever bond Vernon and Medora have, it transcends her infanticide (if we didn’t know how much Vernon loved his son, the unnecessary flashbacks lay it on). Which goes to make a certain degree of sense – a certaindegree – when we consider something Saulnier and Blair elected not to divulge to us: that they’re brother and sister. Would it have made the world of difference to the quality of the movie? Probably not, but there’d at least have been a layer of motivation.
There’s a degree of paralleling Vernon to the wolves Core is more familiar with tracking. Notably, he doesn’t consider Core a threat (since he stays from killing him twice). Perhaps because Core didn’t kill the wolves earlier? When Core is rescued, he is told “They spared you“, with the double meaning of the wolves in the area and the couple.
But, while the movie is pregnant with supernatural import at points, it’s reticent of going full-on down that route, in a manner that ends up being detrimental. The wolf mask feeling like a sub-slasher movie trope, rather than an aid to the uncanny, and the suggestion that Medora is possessed by a wolf demon seems designed to be brushed aside.
It’s clear the Alaskan landscape is a force shaping these characters and their paradigms, but one gradually loses any interest in what exactly these are. Occasionally, one recalls the suggestive strangeness of The Witch, or the foreboding of True Detective Season One, and the movie seems to be heading towards a climactic showdown. Until it isn’t. The result is that the portentousness is unearned, and where those examples had strong characterisation to keep them watchable, the pervading feeling here is of a lack of substance.
Certainly, there’s none to be found with the blank slates of Medora and Vernon (about the most insightful thing I have to say about Skarsgård here is that the early scenes recall his breakthrough role in Generation Kill a decade ago). Wright underplays, much as he does in Westworld, and he’s an interesting actor in search of an interesting character.
There’s a scene where he has dinner with James Badge Dale’s police chief and his wife, and we’re suddenly gifted the feeling of meaningful interaction and character development that’s entirely missing elsewhere. Dale’s performance is probably the most engaging in the picture, but such is typecasting, his mere presence in a movie alerts you to a character who isn’t going to make it to the end credits (it’s a surprise he survives as long as he does).
Is Netflix going to be the home of talented directors who flock towards the streaming giant’s promise of freedom and boundless financing, only to flounder? Mute earlier this year, and now Hold the Dark, may give cause for concern (or perhaps it’s just the Skarsgård factor). Advance word on Apostle and Outlaw King has been mixed (on the other hand, both Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs have been garlanded with accolades).
Saulnier recently departed True Detective Season Three before he’d completed his allotted episodes due to disagreements, so it may be that he needs to pause and retrench. Or make another movie with a colour in the title.