Jeremy Saulnier is known for violence, from his 2013 film Blue Ruin to 2015’s Green Room. His films are relentless, bloody, and exhausting. But his most recent film is another creature entirely. Hold the Dark, released on Netflix, is a slower, quieter meditation on violence that explodes into something weird and fascinating. It appears to be a simple man versus nature tale, but becomes a story motivated by revenge and a deranged sense of justice.
Hold the Dark, based on William Giraldi’s novel of the same name, follows wolf lover and author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) as he travels to Alaska. Why Alaska? He receives a strange letter from Medora Slone (Riley Keough) about a wolf who took her child away. It is a strange, almost cryptic letter, but Core still decides to help the grieving woman before her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), returns from war. What Core finds in the Alaska village of Keelut is something much bigger than a hungry wolf. He finds grief, anger, frustration, and vengeance.
Keough delivers a chilling and unsettling performance as grieving Medora. She sets the tone from the very start as her low voice reads her letter to Core. Sadly, she disappears too soon into the film. I found myself missing her unnerving stare and strange sayings. However, Skarsgard delivers on the unnerving stares. He is absolutely terrifying in this film, despite barely saying a word. He is a silent force, stalking the cold Alaskan night with a gun and crossbow.
The setting of Hold the Dark is central to the film’s meditation on violence and pain. The Alaskan wilderness is harsh and freezing. It is wild, relentless and doesn’t care about a human’s need for heat. The humans that call it home are reflecting the natural world in their own actions. The vastness of the wilderness, and what it holds, is just as terrifying as human’s capacity for violence.
But the film doesn’t entirely take place in Alaska. Briefly, we are taken to the Middle East where Vernon is stationed. Again, it is a hyper-violent setting where corpses are lit on fire and soldiers take selfies with them. It is also where Vernon’s deranged sense of justice is established as he rescues a woman from a U.S. soldier in a shockingly violent manner. This bright, dusty setting is starkly contrasted with the dark and icy Alaskan landscape. However, despite the visual contrast, it is obvious that the levels of violence are the same. While we may think that war is thousands of miles across the world, it is actually here, all around us.
Hold the Dark’s meditative tone is interrupted by moments of extreme violence, such as a showdown with one villager and the police force. The way these moments permeate the quietness of this film makes them all the more shocking. It also creates a tense atmosphere, one where you are constantly waiting for the next kill. The violence is carefully orchestrated and again illustrate the idea that violence is happening every day on American soil.
Underneath the brutality, there is something more sinister, but what exactly that is is never revealed to the audience. There seems to be some strange spiritual connection between Medora and Vernon, hinted at by villagers and the Slones themselves. Medora is even called a wolf demon. This is not, however, a supernatural horror movie, it is a film about justice and revenge. But then why mention these potentially spiritual and supernatural aspects? This is where the film falls short.
While this film is about the Slone family, seemingly the only white people in the town of Keelut, the Yup’ik people make up most of the tiny village. But, as is common, they lurk on the periphery of the film. They are nameless neighbors, pawns, and people to sacrifice to Slone’s quest for revenge.
Hold the Dark is a bleak, freezing look at the hyper-violent nihilism at the core of our society. While there are parts of the film that seem as if they need further explanation or expansion, Saulnier has achieved something fascinating. As a chill begins to settle in the air, Hold the Dark is the perfect film to start off your October viewing.