Hold the Dark

(Saulnier, 2018)


Though beautifully shot and enjoyably creepy, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room follow-up is a bit of a disappointment. With a cast and crew this good, the finished product should be better than this. But instead of another stand-out entry in Saulnier’s filmography, Hold the Dark represents yet another mediocre film in Netflix’s repertoire. It has its moments, but Hold the Dark is ultimately a tedious slog, punctuated by mere moments of true exhilaration

Jeffrey Wright stars as Russell Core, a naturalist and wolf expert who is hired by Alaskan resident Medora Sloane (Riley Keough) to find her son’s killer, who she believes to be a wolf. Though Core does not condone the killing of wild wolves, he agrees to help Sloane find out what happened to her son before her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from Iraq. Of course, in true Saulnier fashion, this movie is not what you think it is. But unlike Green Room, which had my heart pounding from beginning to end, Hold the Dark left me tired and checking my watch.

The gorgeous Alaskan landscape, captured by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, is easily the most engaging element of the film. Reminiscent of last year’s Wind River from Taylor Sheridan, the look of the film denotes an unsettling atmosphere, characterized by the area’s minimal hours of sunlight and all-white exterior. The film’s ominous and simplistic color palette certainly elevates its mystery, but pretty visuals can only keep you engaged for so long. With a runtime of 125 minutes, Hold the Dark does little to hold your attention. The performances, while quite good, are extremely subtle. Jeffrey Wright delivers the best performance of the film, but even he can’t hold up an entire film with just his pensive expression and scraggly beard. Keough’s character is hardly featured as much as she should be and Skarsgård’s soldier is about as stone-faced as it gets. If it weren’t for the killings and shootouts interspersed throughout, Hold the Dark could have been an effective ASMR lullaby. Gorgeous drone shots, heavy breathing, poetic whispering, crackling fires and the crunching of snow under boots all make for great atmosphere. And sometimes that’s enough for a film with no clear plot or direction. But there was a clear attempt at a compelling mystery here, and it just didn’t work. The mythological aspects of the plot seem to be in the vain as films like The VVitch and November, though they are not executed nearly as well. The idea of creating a haunting modern fairytale is growing in popularity, but Hold the Dark doesn’t add much to this emerging genre. Even Netflix’s The Ritual, a modest horror film set in Scandinavia, better achieved this. If you’re interested in films that focus on unsettling folklore in a modern setting, that is the film to check out.

Fans of Saulnier may find something worthwhile from this film, but others will find themselves drifting asleep, before being jolted awake by a murder of fleeting interest. ★★½

David Merkle