Jeremy Saulnier has made a name for himself as a genre filmmaker with quality films such as Blue Ruin and Green Room among others, and he’s brought his talents to Netflix (of course) for his latest directorial effort Hold the Dark. Equal parts bloody and beautiful, Hold the Dark may finally prove to be Saulnier’s breakout feature film for the more casual viewer to finally take note of his name.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Jeremy Saulnier
Written By: Macon Blair (screenplay) and William Giraldi (book)
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope, Tantoo Cardinal, Jonathan Whitesell, Beckam Crawford, Maureen Thomas, Peter McRobbie, and Macon Blair
In a remote Alaskan village, several children have gone missing, presumably killed by the local wolves. One of these children, Bailey (Crawford), prompts the mother Medora (Keough) to contact renowned naturalist and writer Russell Core (Wright) for help. Having read his book, she feels he will be the ideal person for her request: to hunt down the wolf that killed her son. Core takes the long journey to Alaska. Little does Medora know that his reasons for taking on her request are actually far more personal.
Despite sympathizing with her grief, Core does notice Medora’s disturbed mental state. He finds her babbling to herself, walking around naked with a wooden wolf mask.
After Core comes back from hunting, he makes a shocking discovery which becomes the inception of unrelenting carnage one which involves not only Core, but Medora’s veteran husband Vernon (Skarsgård), a wrathful local (Black Antelope) and a well-meaning police-chief (Dale).
Ever since watching Blue Ruin, I hailed Jeremy Saulnier as one of the most exciting young cinematic talents to watch out for. This sentiment was further solidified with 2015’s Green Room, one which pitted a punk band against a band of drug-dealing neo-Nazi’s (led by none other than Patrick Stewart).
Both Blue Ruin and Green Room feature a premise that could easily waver into B-movie territory. But in both cases, Saulnier brings such a dose of humanity and realism which elevates it from your typical thriller schlock. The violence might be extreme but it’s never exploitative. It’s part of the tragic human drama. The characters react to the violent circumstances with their innate frailty. They defend themselves clumsily, and the damage done to them, either physically or psychologically, is real.
The difference between those films and Hold the Dark, besides the Netflix moniker, is the budget. While each of Saulnier’s movies have increased in budget, there’s a larger scope to Hold the Dark that distinguishes it from previous efforts.
And Then Suddenly All Hell Breaks Loose…
Similar to Saulnier’s previous films, the plot takes unconventional turns. At first glance you’d think this film will be all about the hunt for the murderous wolf, perhaps taking a Jack London spiritual sensibility. While London’s spirit might still abound the plot, especially in regards to its unromantic view of nature, the story is about the savagery of an entirely different animal: the human.
The plot is entirely driven by the unwieldy emotions of the characters. There’s no mention of personal gain, no treasure to behold. There’s only the release of grief in all its unforgiving and violent forms.
Probably the most memorable scene is a shoot-out where bullets fly and blood splatters all over the snow. It’s probably the best shoot-out sequence of the year. The gun play sounds realistic; there’s attention to detail with flying shells and bullet holes in cars. It’s one of the most technically brilliant scenes of Saulnier’s career.
The great thing about Hold the Dark is that the film never feels like it’s trying to hide its twist and turns. They just happen. And when they do, all hell breaks loose.
Needless to say, Saulnier does a great job in portraying cinematic violence. None of the violence here looks cool, it just looks destructive. Though there might be some use of CGI blood, most of it looked practical with the use of classical and always efficient blood-squibs.
Sometimes we only see the aftermath which is no less uncomfortable to watch. The film doesn’t hide from the brutality of nature.
Probably the most complicated character is Vernon Slone (played wonderfully by Skarsgård) who we are first introduced to while he’s mercilessly dispatching assailants during his tour in Iraq. But he’s not a mindless monster, even if he can turn into one when he has to. He feels every bit of it somewhere deep down within himself.
And that’s what makes the violence in a Saulnier film so effective. It’s not in how gory it looks but how the characters react.
Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønk brings his photographic eye to Hold the Dark. His resume lies mostly in Danish TV and film, but is no less impressive. He recently brought his visual flairs to Lean on Pete, which took place in Portland, Oregon, an entirely different landscape than Alaska. Though most of Hold the Dark was filmed in Calgary and Kananaskis County.
But still there’s some of Saulnier’s sensibility: the controlled dolly shots, the grit and natural light. He used Jønk’s visual mastery to make his vision come to life. Green Room had a small setting, yet it felt lived in — the same goes for Hold the Dark too. The people inside it feel real and the locals seem genuine. Even with this bigger budget courtesy of Netflix, nothing feels artificial. This is the real world. Quite a beautiful sight in the middle of such savagery.
No Easy Answers
Some of the lukewarm reviews are concerned with the film’s darkness. It’s admittedly not a pleasant film. Besides the local-police chief Donald (Dale), most of the character seem warped or damaged by their life experiences. Everyone seems to live in their own world. Medora is in the grip of some internal demon, possibly inspired by local folklore. Vernon transforms himself into a demon just in the hopes of finding some inner satisfaction. Russell hopes to redeem himself as a parent by doing a favor to another parent. Russell, being a writer, has enamored himself into the life of the mind. Sometimes he found more comfort with the wolves, as their simplistic savagery seem to have more nobility to them while human sophisticated savagery is more cruel, and the end result is far more disturbing.
The film is filled with questions, especially regarding why people do some of the terrible things they do. Most of it is undoubtedly inspired by madness. But the film doesn’t give any easy answers. It’s not that kind of film. Similar to how people were frustrated with the ending of No Country for Old Men, the film dares the viewer to confront the possible meaningless of human drama, how things just happen and we need to accept them before it destroys us from the inside — or before we destroy the world around us.
The only drawback is that despite its two-hour runtime and the excellent script by Macon Blair, the film could have used just a little more development with its characters. It feels like there’s such a broader universe that could have been explored. There are talks about ancient folklores, even how the history of the natives has meddled with the present, economic disparity and how the local feel ignored by local enforcement. But not all of these issues get the attention they deserve. I wish the film could have been a bit longer, just so we can know more about these troubled characters and the cold world they inhabit.
Hold the Dark is a brutal and bleak meditation on human nature that’s intimately rewarding for those who are willing to open their minds to it. The only fault lies in its two-hour running time, which isn’t enough to explore these complicated characters fully. The film boasts some masterful performances, particularly from always reliable Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, and rising star Riley Keough. It’s another Saulnier classic that can stand toe-to-toe with his previous cinematic works. I can’t wait to see what Saulnier will have for us next.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Hold the Dark? Comment down below!
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I love your review of this movie. It’s taken a lot of heat out there, and it is refreshing to see a quality review of it. “Hold the Dark is a brutal and bleak meditation on human nature that’s intimately rewarding for those who are willing to open their minds to it.” Indeed!
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