'Hold the Dark': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Pitch-black to a fault.

This Alaska-set thriller from director Jeremy Saulnier ('Green Room') leans hard into the gloom, with mixed results.

You know you're in the hands of a born filmmaker from the first scene of Hold the Dark, director Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to Green Room (2015). A wide establishing shot of a desolate Alaskan village packs a lot of noirish punch, and it soon becomes clear — as a young child (Beckam Crawford) vanishes, seemingly abducted by wolves — that that title is a plea which the gods, if there are any, will roundly ignore. By the time our ostensible hero, lupine-obsessive author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), is introduced shuffling along the weather-beaten sidewalk outside his apartment, glumly turning off his Christmas lights, all glimmers of hope have effectively vanished. Misery is all around and it's yearning for company.

The wintry dolefulness stays fairly steady from there until, after a languorous section in which Core goes to visit the abducted boy's mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough), and finds she's far past the point of shellshock, the film suddenly cuts to a Middle Eastern desert. There we meet Medora's husband, Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgard), a stoic soldier with a psycho glint in his eye, though his actions are intriguingly contradictory. He'll savagely riddle any brown-skinned antagonist with bullets, yet he's also not above stopping the rape-in-progress of an Iraqi woman (Anabel Kutay) by a fellow serviceman. He stabs the guy until he's incapacitated and then lets the victim herself enact some bloody retribution. Vernon is soon after felled, non-fatally, by a bullet, and the story gains much of its tension from his impending return home to a wife fearful of revealing to him that their son is forever lost.

That's what Core thinks is going on: Medora tells him all she wants is the body of one of the abducting wolves to prove the truth of her assertions to her brutish spouse. In truth, Medora and Vernon have shared motives that are much more bizarre and, in the end, frustratingly opaque — some mystical mumbo-jumbo involving local Native lore, the witch-doctor-like Illanaq (Tantoo Cardinal) and several creepy wolf masks that the couple wear at different points as if they were both demonically possessed and trying to get back to an animalistic natural state. Their character psychology may have been more sensical in William Giraldi's 2014 novel, adapted for the screen by Saulnier's frequent collaborator Macon Blair, who also appears here in a small role. And to a degree, the obscurity of the couple's actions is intentional since Core, as with many a noir protagonist, is meant to play catch-up through most of the tale. 

Yet the mystery surrounding the Slones and their missing child is much less interesting than Core's burgeoning friendship with the local sheriff, Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), who assists with the investigation. They're both the kind of world-wearied men whose default mode is taciturn despair, and their mumbly bromance deepens once Vernon goes violently rogue with his Native ally, Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope). These are the scenes Saulnier seems most taken with, the apex being a masterfully staged, wrenchingly prolonged shootout between Cheeon and local law enforcement in which death comes quick and undignified for many. The reticent way in which Core and Marium commiserate over several drinks in the massacre's aftermath speaks volumes about those who choose to live in a perpetual dark night of the soul. All the survivalist/supernatural trappings that follow can't help but pale in comparison.

Production companies: VisionChaos, Addictive Pictures, filmscience
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Screenwriter: Macon Blair
Executive producers: Vincent Savino, Uwe Feuersenger, Riva Marker, Luc Etienne, Ben Browning
Producers: Russell Ackerman, John Schoenfelder, Eva Maria Daniels, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani
Cinematography: Magnus Nordenhof Jonck
Editing: Julia Bloch
Original score: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Production designer: Ryan Warren Smith
Sound: Tony Volante
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

125 minutes