A beautiful-looking bore.
This is an advance review from Fantastic Fest. Hold the Dark opens in theaters and streams on Netflix on Sept. 28.
Hold the Dark, Jeremy Saulnier’s first feature since Green Room, is about the complexity and randomness of human behavior compared to that of wild animals, yet no amount of unsettling violence, mythology or gorgeous set pieces can save this beautiful-looking but ultimately disappointing film.
Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright, TV’s most confused-looking actor, stars here as yet another character who has no idea what’s going on. Author Russell Core (Wright) is summoned to a remote Alaskan village by a desperate mother asking him to hunt down a wolf. Medora Slone (Riley Keough) is said grieving mother, whose husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) is away in Iraq. Slone’s village has a history of children being snatched by wolves, making Core her only hope to track down the beast and kill it in revenge – despite Core being an advocate for wolf preservation.
Adapted from William Giraldi’s book of the same name, Saulnier and regular collaborator writer Macon Blair take on the daunting task of condensing a weighty story into a lean two-hour runtime. The final product ends up being both too dense, trying to cram in too much, yet also incredibly thin. The plot melts away as quickly as a snowflake, with Hold the Dark trying to rely more on ambiance than story, yet even the foreboding of the dark wilderness can only last so long.
The story moves at the same pace as the glaciers the characters cross, testing one’s patience and will to sit through the rest of the film. Saulnier almost rewards that patience with occasional outbursts of violence as gut-punching and stunning as those seen in the best midnight movies. One particular scene stands out, an extended shoot-out sequence with local police that shows just how brutal gun violence is, with so many headshots you’ll lose count.
Hold the Dark doesn’t offer anything new performance-wise. Jeffrey Wright portrays the same type of perplexed character he plays on Westworld, only without the benefit of 10 hours worth of story. Alexander Skarsgård plays to his psychopathic strengths that were so praised in Big Little Lies, while Riley Keough gets the short end of the stick with barely anything to do.
At least Hold the Dark is a beautifully haunting-looking film, thanks to Saulnier and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. There is a vastness to every scene that makes you feel just how small people are against this cold, unforgiving land (and makes one question anybody’s decision to settle there in the first place). The camera lingers on the expansive forest and frozen tundra, creating a sense of dread and teasing the numerous things that can easily kill you. There’s an irony then about Saulnier’s most ambitious and best-looking film yet (partially) premiering on Netflix, as watching this in broad daylight on a TV or a laptop is a disservice to both the film and the beauty of Alaska.
In movies, there is something about the cold, dark winter that makes the skin crawl and causes characters to behave in strange ways. Hold the Dark tries to say something about how random and inexplicable humans can behave. “Killing to eat is natural, but revenge is human” is both a quote and a central theme in the film, but by telling the audience that not everything humans do can be reasonably explained, the film is left devoid of any answers or motivation whatsoever. There is even an attempt to make this a supernatural tale without much follow-up, which extends to its complete lack of an ending.