Hold The Dark is a bold left turn from Jeremy Saulnier
With his fourth film, director Jeremy Saulnier (Murder Party, Blue Ruin, Green Room) is doing something new. For the first time, he is adapting someone else's work (Hold The Dark is based on the novel by William Giraldi). It must have been a risky move for an artist with an oeuvre as unique as Saulnier's–all of his previous films have been examinations of violence as committed by people who aren't very good at it. They are mostly civilians, people who have found themselves in extreme situations where resorting to murder is now the only option for survival. In Hold The Dark, most of the characters we meet are seasoned killers, predators, or hunters themselves. We are no longer in punk venues or living rooms- we are in wolf country now.
At the beginning of Hold The Dark, Medora (Riley Keough) finds her son has gone missing- apparently taken by wolves. There has been a string of such incidents in their small town of Emery, Alaska. She writes to Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a wolf tracker and writer, who comes to help, "if I can," as he says. With Medora's husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgaard) away at war in Iraq (the film seems to take place around 2004), she feels pressure to resolve the incident and find her son before he returns home.
When Vernon finally does, the body count begins to rise- and Hold The Dark turns into a full on thrilling mystery. Whereas Blue Ruin and Green Room established their scenarios and stakes immediately, the viewer spends the majority of the running time wondering just what is going on. Big scenes of exposition are all but skipped, but that doesn’t mean the film is lacking in the essential details. Macon Blair's script finds subtle ways to tell you what you need to know about the movie’s core themes (as in Green Room, just pay attention to what the four legged friends are doing), although just a few additional clarifying moments might have been helpful for grounding us in the plot.
The result is a movie that is less frenetic and urgent than you might have been expecting, yet still full of candy both sweet and sour. The images are stunning, with full advantage taken of the natural environment to fill every last inch of the frames with something gorgeous. The cast is strong, as is the music by Philadelphia's own Brooke and Will Blair.
In the end, Hold The Dark works best as a mood piece- even so, it turns out to be not much of a departure at all from Saulnier's previous work. He is still singularly focused on figuring out what American violence looks like. In this case, he is looking specifically at how we inflict damage on future generations. Much like wolves, we have the capacity to eat our young when times are tough. Unlike the wolves, we should know better.
Hold the Dark is currently streaming on Netflix.