Some films are so atmospheric, you can almost feel the temperature. Apocalypse Now evokes this hot humidity, Lawrence of Arabia and its burning desert heat make you want to open the three top buttons of your shirt and get another cold drink from the fridge. Hold the Dark goes the other way: there are few films that make you feel the need to huddle under a warm cover with a mug of hot chocolate like this one. The Alaskan tourism board may be pleased with how beautiful the state’s wilderness looks in Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film, but it is a forbidding beauty that makes you wonder whether it is worth the freezing temperatures and the apparent likelihood of being killed by a wolf. Doubly so if that wolf wears the skin of a human being.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Hold the Dark is not a horror movie nor does it truck in the supernatural, even if the trailer may suggest otherwise. At the same time, a sense of the mythical does suffuse the film and may provide more convincing answers to the characters’ motivations than mundane psychology could. The story it tells, and the story’s setting, could be straight out of the more gruesome scandi noirs, emphasis on the pitch noir: wolf expert Russell Core (played by a subdued Jeffrey Wright) travels to a small Alaskan village at the request of a local woman, Medora Slone (Riley Keough), whose child was supposedly taken and killed by wolves. It soon turns out that things are even bleaker than expected: the child was not killed by animals but by his own mother, who has fled into the wilderness. Was she depressed? Did the darkness and the cold drive her mad? Or was the local ‘witch’ right and there’d been something wrong with Medora from the start? Meanwhile, Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), who has just returned after being wounded in Iraq, carves a trail of blood looking for his wife and the killer of his child: one apparent beast hunting another, with Core going after both of them. To bring them to justice? Save Medora? Or simply to make sense of the horrors he’s witnessed? Most likely, the old, tired man doesn’t know himself, but there is something to this quest that doesn’t allow him to give up and leave things to the professionals.
Not that the professionals do that much better, though; other than police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), practically all of Hold the Dark‘s representatives of law enforcement are clearly not up to the task, as the film’s most memorable sequence gruesomely shows. Saulnier’s use of violence in his most recent films has been intriguing and untypical: Blue Ruin was a revenge thriller where the central character is clearly not much suited to violent revenge, and while the visceral violence in Green Room resulted in me almost being unable to watch the film, it was never trivialised or turned into bloody entertainment. The director doesn’t moralise movie violence so much as look at it unflinchingly and with empathy, as he shows us the physical damage human beings can do to each other with alarming ease.
However, while Hold the Dark‘s use of violence recalls Saulnier’s previous two films, in other respects it is a departure. Both Blue Ruin and Green Room were intimate films, they were genre pieces doubling as character studies, and while they portrayed horrific, bloody deeds, they nevertheless had a warmth and humanity that was surprising. There is little warmth in Hold the Dark, and the humanity that is on display is constantly at risk of being snuffed out and covered by a thick blanket of snow and ice. Neither Medora nor Vernon seem fully human, and while a different film might have portrayed them as traumatised people left wounded and raw by their environments, Hold the Dark turns them into something both more and less than human. Core, even if Jeffrey Wright’s performance is able as ever, also comes across as reduced: the man seems so tired and depleted, he is only half there much of the time. Badge Dale brings most warmth to his performance as the police chief, while Julian Black Antelope excels as a friend of Vernon’s whose bleak, deadpan sarcasm just barely covers his sense of loss and rage, and Macon Blair, a frequent collaborator of Saulnier who also wrote the script for Hold the Dark, has a fun cameo.
Otherwise, though, the film is so focused on developing its oppressive atmosphere that it almost suffocates. While I was watching Hold the Dark, the mood and tone were enough to engage me, but afterwards I realised that the experience felt muted and oddly hollow. I’ll remember a handful of scenes and the gorgeous, foreboding visuals – but I don’t think the characters will stay with me, the way that Blue Ruin‘s mousy angel of vengeance Dwight and Green Room‘s punk band, the Ain’t Rights, have. In the end, the film’s human wolves may have too little bite to leave much of a mark.
Hold the Dark is available on Netflix.