The death of a child in the remote Alaskan wilderness leads to nature writer Russell Core (Wright) being hired to track down the pack of wolves responsible. But what he uncovers is more bizarre than nature intended.
From the dark mind of director Jeremy Saulnier, director of Blue Rein and The Green Room, comes a twisted tale of despair, darkness, and society broken down. Set in the desolate far north, where nature and darkness are impossible to separate from civilisation, nature writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) finds himself hunting – both for the pack of wolves responsible for the death of a local boy and, personally, for reconnection with his estranged daughter. So, we know why he’s there. Ish.
Where Hold the Dark loses its way is what happens next. This sounds far worse than it is – a two hour-plus film that doesn’t tell a clear story? Look at directors like Terence Malik, and you see that a film doesn’t necessarily have to tell a coherent story to work. Sometimes a narrative at the fringes of a story, one that communicates themes and scenarios familiar to real life, can excel at reaching us. Saulnier’s effort, while not hitting those heights, certainly does look and feel good while it goes nowhere, like a scenic train ride that reaches a break in the tracks. An ambitious leap in scale and budget compared to his past works, the director captures the sweeping beauty of the Alaskan landscape superbly. The surroundings become an eerie enemy of Core’s search for answers as obstacle after obstacle appears from the empty ice. The land and the wolf pack hunted throughout become chilling symbols of uncompromising nature which humanity can’t tame, feeding into the unrelenting mystery of Hold the Dark.
Furthering this mysterious plot is the story arc of the unusual Slone family. The incomprehensible Medora Slone (Riley Keough) and her psychotic soldier husband Vernon (an unsettling Alexander Skarsgård) are the core subjects of the film, even if Core is the protagonist, and their actions and motivations remain closely guarded throughout the film. Medora as a character is sorely underused, gaining most of her screen time at the beginning and end of the film. Meanwhile, Vernon’s rampage on his return from serving in Afghanistan offers insight into the unhinged mind of someone destroyed by conflict. But, crucially, we never really understand how either character ticks. If Saulnier knows himself, he isn’t forthcoming with clues. The pair seem more symbolic than real, their actions mere reflections of the brutal landscape itself. A little less brooding and a little more character development would have righted this balance.
The rest of the cast is able – James Badge Dale plays a straight-laced cop that carries his side of the narrative, while Canadian First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope delivers a dead-behind-the-eyes turn as Vernon’s friend Cheeon. His stand-off with the police midway through the movie was a highlight, though more interesting as a stand-apart set piece than an essential element of the plot development. Wright works well with the material to hand, but ultimately this isn’t a film for character work. Let yourself be chilled by the intense landscape and subtle camerawork – and don’t worry about feeling left in the dark over the story. That could well be the whole point.
Catch Hold the Dark on Netflix now.
Brutal action sequences and exquisitely bleak surroundings balance out a confused and overly ambitious plot. 6/10.