Photo courtesy of Decider
Story by Brandon Black / Contributing Writer
For movies that clearly preach an anti-violence message, Jeremy Saulnier’s films sure do contain quite a bit of stomach-churning gore. After his last two projects, slow-burning revenge thriller “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” a thinking man’s slasher flick with a brutal edge, Saulnier is not yet ready to let that quality go. He is, however, prepared to set his sights on something much bigger in “Hold the Dark,” a straight to Netflix thriller that soars in its brightest moments but tends to hobble along the way.
When I say bigger, I mean it. Saulnier transports us from the relatively small-scale settings of his previous films to the untamed wilderness of Alaska, with sweeping shots of snow-covered mountainsides and forests that extend beyond the scope of the human eye. It’s the kind of imagery that would make you wish it was Christmas already; if the snow wasn’t red with blood.
Against that breathtaking backdrop, “Hold the Dark” has a story too, which is an excellent feature for a movie to contain. But the shots are gorgeous. Saulnier’s tale puts his audience in the snowshoes of writer Russell Core, played by “Westworld’s” Jeffrey Wright, who is contacted by Medora Slone (Riley Keough, “Logan Lucky”) to find and dispose of the wolf that killed her son. Things do not go according to any sort of plan as the police get involved and Medora’s husband, Vernon, (Alexander Skarsgard) returns from the Iraq war.
Nearly every aspect of “Hold the Dark” is muted. This is not a splashy action romp or a rollercoaster ride fueled by jump-scares. The performances are as understated as the film’s color palette and Wright specifically tunes in to his character’s quiet empathy, which highlights the desperation of the few outbursts he has. He’s the audience’s rock and gains our support early on. Skarsgard and Keough have the more traditionally tragic story, and while their performances are appropriately unsettling and overall effective, the narrative does not do them the justice it does Core. It doesn’t help that their characters whisper for the entire 125-minute runtime.
When people go into a Saulnier movie, they expect tension and it is undeniably present here. As jaw-dropping as the Alaskan outdoors are, Saulnier does a terrific job of turning something beautiful into a ticking time bomb. Each slow-panning shot pulls the audience further from civilization, crafting a sense of isolation that’s difficult to shake. As the film goes, it doesn’t matter how many people are onscreen. That feeling of being alone pervades the narrative more with every twist and turn.
The best of these tense moments comes about halfway through the movie with a shootout, in which SO MANY people die. There are blood and guts aplenty, and each gunshot establishes itself as the primary antagonist onscreen. The action is clear, brutal, effective and most importantly, serves a purpose. The scene comes from out of nowhere and feels totally real in its subdued extravagance, making its point about the random and surreal nature of a violent situation abundantly clear. This is a genuinely well-staged, great action scene with clear stakes. It doesn’t want to be there but has to be, and it’s excellent.
Where the film falls short is in its deliberately bogged-down pacing and lack of characterization for some characters. This is Saulnier’s first time adapting another person’s work, namely William Geraldi’s book of the same name, and this could serve as an explanation for the dip in this aspect of the film, especially when compared to a movie like “Green Room.” He also did not write the screenplay, as his frequent collaborator Macon Blair, who is wonderful in a role as the film’s only semi-comic relief, took over scriptwriting duties. The story is just as winding as the forest paths themselves, and while this tactic allows moments of tension to flourish, it does rob some scenes of their momentum.
The movie manages to also tie in wolf-demons and citizens of a town on the edge of civilization whose roles are never fully explained but add a welcome extra layer of discomfort to the proceedings. While the film gets distracted by itself at times, “Hold the Dark” is a tonal exercise first that doesn’t hold your hand or over-explain, contains some expertly crafted tension with a lingering sense of dread, has a delightful central performance and somehow leaves room for hope. If that’s not enough, then at least you can still look at the pretty Christmas mountains.
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