Director Jeremy Saulnier makes a certain kind of film: they are methodically paced, morally complicated, stacked with great performances and even greater amounts of gore. Hold The Dark, Saulnier’s fourth feature and his first since 2015’s Green Room, doesn’t adhere to his previous two color-oriented titles, but it does have all of the other aforementioned qualities.
The northern Alaska-set mystery thriller takes its time establishing its multifaceted characters and unusual premise, easing into its unconventional narrative by way of a tragic inciting incident that eventually snowballs into maximum carnage. The film opens with the disappearance of Bailey (Beckam Crawford) by wolves as he plays in his front year in the remote town of Keelut. The boy’s mother Medora (Riley Keough) writes to author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), imploring the man who literally wrote the book on the animals to track down and eliminate the pack that she presumes killed her son.
It’s an odd premise made all the stranger by Medora’s unusual behavior. When Russell arrives he finds a withdrawn, soft-spoken woman who feels abandoned by her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier serving in the military in Fallujah, Iraq. Medora speaks ominously about the encroaching darkness and later climbs into Russell’s bed wearing nothing but a wooden indigenous mask. Is it grief or it is something else, something mystical or possibly even demonic?
Russell sets out the next day to find the wolves, but quickly deduces that they were not responsible for Bailey’s disappearance. It is not until he returns to the cabin that he discovers the truth: Medora is gone and Bailey’s body in hidden in the basement.
This may sound like a major spoiler, but Bailey’s murder is barely the beginning of Hold The Dark’s grim and haunting story. Steeped in atmosphere courtesy of the near-perpetual dark and the mysticism of Indigenous lore, this is Saulnier’s return to contemplative and mature thrillers (it’s more akin to Blue Ruin than Green Room).
The director’s propensity for nihilistic revenge stories that staunchly refuse to adhere to traditional narrative structures persists; so too does his penchant for impressively realistic hyper-violence and gore. Filmed in the Kananaskis Mountains of Alberta, Canada, what few daytime shots exist make good use of the expansive mountain range and desolate forest to reinforce how isolated Keelut and its citizens are. This remoteness plays a contributing factor when Vernon returns from his tour and meets up with his disgruntled friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) to exact revenge on Medora and anyone else standing in their way, including Russell and dedicated local cop Donald Marium (James Badge Dale).
Hold The Dark features no less than four strong male leads. Wright sometimes falls into the mannerisms and cadence of his Westword character Bernard, but he excels at capturing Russell’s aged weariness and exhaustion. Skarsgård is appropriately threatening, using his tall, athletic frame to full effect while Badge Dale’s warm humanism is a great complement to Wright. Finally – and most impressively – Black Antelope manages to make Cheeon both an intimidating and intelligent character, particularly when he squares off against Donald. Sadly as the film’s lone significant female character, Riley Keogh isn’t given much to do and Medora doesn’t benefit from Keogh’s hard to hear, whispery line delivery.
The fact that so much of the film is tinged with melancholy, grief and regret is emblematic of its thematic interest in children and parenting. This arises early on during Russell’s reconnaissance mission when he observes the wolves eating their pup. He later explains to Donald that this sometimes occurs during times of resource scarcity – it is commentary not on the wolves’ failure as parents, but rather emblematic of their will to survive and keep the pack strong.
The observation arises in discussion about Donald’s anxiety over his impending status as a mature father. Russell relates to Donald’s fears because he is filled with his own regrets over his strained relationship with his adult daughter living in Anchorage, whom he had hoped to visit after accepting Medora’s plea.
These parenting threads intersect not only with Vernon’s quest for vengeance, but also in a line of dialogue that Russell delivers about the unknowability of people. This is the crux of Hold the Dark’s central argument: unlike animals, people do not adhere to codes of conduct or patterns of behavior. This is the perfect summation for a film that traffics in characters committing heinous acts that go unexplained or are known only to themselves.
Like Saulnier’s other work, very little plays out as it would in a more traditional thriller. This is most evident in Hold the Dark’s most adrenaline-spiking moment, which occurs near the halfway point when Donald tries to convince Cheeon to turn himself in for questioning. That violence ensues isn’t surprising; it is the form and the ferocity that it takes that is shocking. This sequence is a standout action setpiece, but its placement at the midpoint makes it a difficult act to follow. Unfortunately, the film unravels in its laconic last act en route to an ending that offers very few answers and not much of a climax – two characteristics that will not endear it to audiences looking for closure or action. The decision to release the film on Netflix may prove to be a wise one as it may help to soften some of the frustration.
Ultimately Hold the Dark is an ambitious and introverted crime thriller from a director who is unafraid to take risks. In this respect Hold the Dark, like fellow TIFF property In Fabric, works best in hindsight and as a sum of its parts, several of which are truly exemplary. Hold the Dark is a challenging, fascinating film, but not quite the slam dunk that fans of Saulnier, particularly those who favored the more straightforward Green Room, were likely hoping for.