Fantastic Fest Review: ‘HOLD THE DARK’ – wolves at the door

James Cole Clay // Film Critic

HOLD THE DARK

Not rated, 125 minutes.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgaard, Riley Keough and James Badge Dale

Jeremy Saulnier has risen through the ranks of respected American filmmakers with his hard-boiled stylings such as BLUE RUIN and his anarchistic punks vs. skinheads battle royale, GREEN ROOM. The types of films he seems to be drawn to making take their time to build atmosphere by giving you a sense of space and environment. His latest entrée, HOLD THE DARK, continues this tradition with a depiction of the Alaskan wilderness that’s more of prison than habitat. Based on the 2014 novel by William Geraldi of the same title and screenplay by Macon Blair (BLUE RUIN), this story employes hard-boiled intensity that’s like WIND RIVER meets THE ROAD. Saulnier is operating on a whole new level this go round, taking his contemplative moods and amplifying them into a bold piece of filmmaking.

Russel Core (Jeffrey Wright) is a retired wolf specialist who ventures out onto the edge of the Alaskan wilderness to give aid to Medora Sloane ( Riley Keough) after a pack of starving wolves kills her son. They delve into an existential crisis about what separates the humans from the animals in such dire conditions. Meanwhile, coming home from a tour of Iraq, Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgaard) discovers the news of his child’s passing, setting off a violent rampage of grief across the icy landscape. As local cop Don Marium (James Badge Dale) races to minimize the body count, it sets forth an exploration inside the primal nature of the human spirit.

Jeffrey Wright in ‘HOLD THE DARK.’ Courtesy of Netflix.

The first half of the movie promises wolf related carnage as they are the looming threat in the darkest hours of the night—apparently the sun rises at 10:00 am and sets promptly at 3:30 pm—but offers up some spooky spectral scenes with Keough who waxes on about the meaning of grief while offering up only a distant shade of humanity. Wright and Keough are on the forefront, yet Saulnier switches the film’s perspective to Vernon, then to Don and back to Russell for a hodgepodge of thoughts that somehow feel like part of a cohesive story. Each actor brings their personal school of thought to this material. You feel the collaboration at work between the actors and the filmmakers; it’s almost musical.

HOLD THE DARK bolsters an otherworldly mood and given that Netflix is distributing the film, all these poetic images serve well under cover of darkness in your living room. It’s a shame that the masses won’t get to see this on the big screen, but those looking to access a meditative campfire tale will be more than thrilled.

Saulnier lets the story simmer in true novelistic fashion as Blair’s screenplay does a lot of the heavy lifting regarding setting the stage. The violence in this story may not dip into gratuitous, but its brutality is felt throughout, culminating in one mid-point moment full of remarkable rage.

HOLD THE DARK is poetic as it exposes many ideas of the human condition and our will to survive when darkness takes hold. The characters who inhabit this space are looking for something more, and luckily Saulnier’s direction provides that clarity in ways that subvert expectations. As the story spins into its climax, there’s a quiet space where you may be looking for something more, but it exists in the abstract.

Grade: B+

HOLD THE DARK premieres on Netflix on Friday (9/28).

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