"Hold The Dark" Is A Cold Slog Through The Last Frontier

If Jeremy Saulnier’s neo-Nazi thriller “Green Room” was a thrash masterpiece, his Alaskan-set follow-up “Hold The Dark” is bad prog rock: cold, soupy, faux-philosophical miscellany, wielding a few good ideas and oozing bad ones.

Based on the 2014 book by William Giraldi and scripted by Saulnier’s forever collaborator Macon Blair (who appears in a cameo), the Netflix release stars the great Jeffrey Wright (HBO’s “Westworld”), whose performance bears the film’s only glint of humanity. Wright is Russell Core, a gruff naturalist called to a remote village in the Last Frontier by a mother named Medora Sloane (Riley Keough). Through Medora’s cryptic Jim Morrison-isms we learn that wolves have taken several of the town’s children, including her son Bailey. Or so we’re led to believe for twenty minutes until the film takes its first grisly turn.

Soon, husband, father, and soldier Vernon Sloane (Alexander Skarsgård) comes home from his station in Iraq (it’s 2004) to find his family obliterated. Medora has taken off for the wilderness – natives say an evil wolf spirit has overtaken her – and Vernon sets off after her with a wild agenda of his own. One of ultraviolence. (For all the movie’s ambiguity, there’s none here. We’ve already seen Vernon abruptly stab a fellow soldier to death for raping an Iraqi woman.)

Because Core can’t pensively observe wolves for all of the pic’s 125 minutes, he teams up with local police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) to track Vernon. Much snow has already run red.

Unlike the bloodshed in Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” or “Green Room” where it was almost hypnotically effective, here it’s a means to an end – an unsatisfying one. The film ignores Core for long stretches while painting Vernon Sloane’s sociopathy in awfully broad strokes, Saulnier punctuating an undisciplined, unfocused narrative with splashes of graphic violence. A shootout that might’ve been the shocking centerpiece of a more human, more thoughtful film (take the comparable “Wind River,” for example, whose shootout is a stunner) instead comes off as a dreary inevitability.

Symbolically, the actual wolves in the movie – at first a major part of the plot – end up over-contoured metaphors for Vernon Sloane and those who run in his pack. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: the Sloanes as avatars for the broodingly photographed wolves. Either way, the thematic heavy lifting we’re asked to do by Saulnier and Blair is an awkward request; in reality there isn’t much to lift.

The off chance is that “Hold The Dark” simply never came together in the editing room. But more likely the source material just isn’t big screen-ready, Saulnier and Blair too in love with the text for their own good. The sultry moods and tones that often lie between the lines of a great book make not for guaranteed success on the screen. In fact, mood pieces are often better left to the page, where images are no replacement for imagination. Even the director’s crude debut “Murder Party” felt more fully formed than this.

For Saulnier completists only.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: September 28, 2018
Studio: Netflix
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Screenwriter: Macon Blair
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope