Hold the Dark is the latest film from extraordinarily talented director Jeremy Saulnier (Murder Party, Blue Ruin, Green Room). It’s a harsh, bleak, and visually stunning thriller set in the sparse isolation of a small Alaskan community. Saulnier’s previous films have also focused on isolated communities, but Hold the Dark is by far the largest in scale.
In Hold the Dark, we follow writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright – Westworld, Boardwalk Empire), a retired naturalist and wolf expert. He receives a letter from young grieving mother Medora Sloane (Riley Keogh – Mad Max: Fury Road, It Comes at Night) whose 6-year-old son was taken by a wolf pack that has already claimed three other local children. Medora asks Core to come to Alaska to kill the wolves as local authorities have made no steps to help the isolated (and mostly Indigenous) community.
When Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård – True Blood, War on Everyone), returns from the Iraq War, the news of his son’s death ignites a violent chain of events that drags Core into a vicious heart of darkness.
Written by Macon Blair – who has also appeared in all three of Saulnier’s previous feature films – and adapted from the 2014 novel by William Giraldi, Hold the Dark is wonderfully economical in its exposition.
As an audience, we only see and hear what is needed to tell the story we’re immediately faced with. Still, the information we are given is extremely limited and mostly implied. Lines are subtly dropped that allow the viewer to piece together other points in the backstory, but Blair makes you work for it, and much is left open to interpretation.
It adds a layer of mystery that echoes the emotionally closed nature of the characters on screen. We gain just as much from the silences as we do the dialogue.
In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, the only point to be discussed regarding the plot will be to say that it unfolds in a way that keeps the audience searching for these clues. Visual cues and bits of dialogue cycle back and give an attentive audience more to unpack.
The limited daylight in Alaskan winter plays a large part in the atmosphere of the film. The disorientation of a seemingly endless night works in sharp contrast with the overwhelming light of a bright sun on snow.
The film is permeated in darkness; the limited light creates that impression of a harsh cold that you can feel in your bones. This lack of warmth is felt through the characters – there’s a palpable tension and quiet anger lying just under the surface.
One particular confrontation between police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale – 13 Hours) and fury-filled local, Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope – Penny Dreadful), simmers with a taut but controlled rage. Every performance in the film is incredible, but this head-to-head had the whole TIFF audience on edge.
The characters of Vernon and Medora Sloane have an unnatural, masking calm that is as captivating as it is unsettling. There’s something about them that you’re never quite sure you understand, which makes them fascinating to watch.
The way that Saulnier shoots scenes of violence is extremely effective. He captures the horrific and gruesome acts without lingering long enough to glorify them.
The result is just as stomach-churning without being gratuitous, and it mimics the way we often naturally observe brutal injuries – we glance long enough to register, then turn away to process.
Think of the arm injury or stomach slit in Green Room, for example. You can remember exactly what they look like, even though each are only visible for 1-2 seconds.
The beautiful but isolating wilderness of Alaska is cleverly used by Saulnier and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (A Hijacking). Though shot in Alberta, Canada, the message is the same: we are insignificant, and nature is beyond our control.
Hold the Dark wraps around concepts of parental trauma, isolation, neglect, and our own personal nature. There are different sides to every story, and in one way or another, we’re all villains here.
Hold the Dark arrives on Netflix on September 28th.