Review: Hold the Dark (2018)

In Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier uses the tight confines of a dingy punk rock club in rural America to create isolation and tension as a band is besieged by neo-Nazis. At one point, the group is hauled up in the confines of a sound check room with no access to the outside world. Sauldnier’s latest film, Netflix’s Hold the Dark, contains sprawling Alaskan landscapes and stunning cinematography that creates bleakness and despair. The violence is as brutal and sudden as some of the scenes in Green Room. However, the film strays into too much ambiguity near the halfway point and sinks beneath its own weight.

Hold the Dark is based on the 2014 novel by William Giraldi, and it traces the journey/mission of writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who is summoned by Medora Slone (Riley Keough) to investigate the loss of her son, who was allegedly killed by a pack of wolves. The animals are also blamed for the death of other children in the village. The opening act  is the strongest, especially the scenes between Wright and Keough, whose acting is top notch. The dialogue is well-crafted and builds a foreboding sense of darkness that can’t be kept at bay, especially when Medora says, “The wilderness here is inside us…Inside everything.” The early scenes are isolating and often feature long shots of the all-consuming Alaskan wilderness, sometimes with the characters set small against the backdrop. One of the most tense scenes occurs when Core stumbles down a snowy hill and encounters the pack of wolves, their snouts bloodied after devouring one of their own, a cub. It’s a survival of the fittest/kill or be killed type of world.

Holdthedark

Russell Core (Jeremy Wright) and Medora Slone (Riley Keough)

Following the opening act, once Medora flees the scene and after it’s discovered that she may have been the one who killed her son, the rest of the film loses its momentum and veers off track, especially once her husband, Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgård), returns home from Iraq after getting shot in the neck. He kills and kills some more, as he searches for his wife. There were several missed opportunities and potential story lines left uncharted. The idea of isolation and loneliness caused by Vernon Slone’s Iraq tour is generally unexplored. Imagine being a military spouse, left to raise your child alone in Alaska. The tension between what the Native people believe about nature and the wolves and what police believe, mainly that there is no greater, metaphysical force at work, is interesting and deserved far more attention. Early on, the idea that there is some connection between Medora Slone and the wolves is lightly introduced but also underdeveloped. I had hoped the film would have explored some connection between the feminine and nature and how Medora is viewed by the villagers and the police.

Watch the trailer for Hold the Dark:

 

The film’s final act, when Core eventually confronts Vernon Slone, is the most frustrating. Yes, they come face to face and one walks away, so to speak, but the film’s conclusion is utterly ambiguous. Nothing is really resolved. It takes over two hours to build to such a climax, only to veer off into a strange direction with no finality.

The acting and cinematography are the highlights of Hold the Dark, and fans who liked the level of gore and violence in Green Room won’t be disappointed with some of the brutal scenes in Saulnier’s latest effort. However, the film’s plot comes unglued around the halfway point, and anyone who sticks around for the ending will probably find it underwhelming.

 

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