A missing boy in Alaska brings wolf hunters and the boy's soldier father back home in search of him.
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Starring Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, and Riley Keough
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
There are ideas here that hint at the film that could have been. Inhabitants of an isolated place going nuts is a reliable story. Vernon is moving from one oppressive part of the world to another, unable to escape callousness and cruelty. Core tells Medora that, if wolves did eat her kid, this is a statistically rare event, but she reminds him in less words than I’ll use that statistics have no meaning for the individual that the rare event happens to. The wolves cannibalizing their own young is an obvious mirror to the film’s primary action, behavior that the animals sometimes engage in to ensure that the pack survives. Hold the Dark clearly has thoughts on its mind in a way that Blue Ruin and Green Room don’t. The former seems most interested in its mumbled speeches, while the latter were exercises in stress management. The Coen Brothers hop around genres and tones all the time, so why can’t Saulnier?
Hold the Dark is no No Country for many reasons, primarily because in its search for meaning, or even a poeticism in a lack of meaning, the film becomes opaque and pretentious. The aforementioned mumbles are the largest red flag, particularly from Jeffrey Wright’s Russell Core. Here’s how Hold the Dark blows the creation of believable characters: no one ever asks Core to speak up. Wright’s usually a good actor, but he, Saulnier, and Blair are stuck with mannerisms and forget to come up with anything to be said. Additionally, Core’s the outsider and should be the viewer’s surrogate into a place that clearly has its own arcane customs and rituals. He provides no illumination on the strange conversations and behavior of the townsfolk. Instead, the Sloanes wear masks for no other reason than they’re creepy, or because it’s vaguely an Inuit custom and Saulnier’s making a half-hearted attempt to add atmosphere.
To make another comparison to Green Room, a film so straightforward in its morality that it’s about young men and women versus neo-Nazi’s, a character who helps the protagonists momentarily evade the Nazi’s is murdered unceremoniously with a shotgun blast from an unseen assailant. I don’t think the viewer even sees the body hit the ground, and again, this is a character working to thwart Nazi’s. The gist is that intention will not prevent the character’s brains being splattered on the liquor bottles behind him. In Hold the Dark, Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) mows down about a dozen cops because, in a resemblance to other sadistic mass shooters, he wants to take people with him when he dies. That character is given an angelic crucifixion pose as he is shot out of his window into the snow below. Based on these contrasting depictions, how is the viewer intended to feel about any of these characters? Medora kills her son with her bare hands, and is not punished for it. Vernon kills people who are trying to help him, and is not punished for it. Vernon also does a (presumed) Iraqi rape victim the huge favor of leaving a stabbed US Army rapist corpse in her home, which I’m sure will have no negative consequences for her in the mid-2000’s, though the film treats this as an indication of Vernon’s primal code of ethics. At some point, movies have to put their nickel down, and there’s no one the viewer can get behind, not self-pitying Core and not idiotic sheriff Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), who should know better than to talk about his cruise on the Live-4-Ever before he goes out on a dangerous mission.
For all the majestic vistas and secret hot springs of the frozen north, Saulnier ultimately makes an anti-tourist video with Hold the Dark. In his depiction of this place, the act of renting a room to see all this splendor would result in a non sequitur anecdote that has nothing to do with anything. No one’s behavior would make any sense, and no one can give a reason what they’re even doing there. Maybe it’s just too hard to thaw out all your possessions and get out of what appears to be the worst place in the world, and this film contains scenes in an active war zone. I like Skarsgard as a terminator-type with a tribal mask on, intentions be damned, and though Saulnier strays from his usual habit of unflinchingly portraying the after effects of violence, I appreciate the times when he reminds the viewer of his better work. Outside of that tiny bit of praise, this is laughable in its attempts to be a capital-S serious work. Congratulations, Hold the Dark, you’re successfully achieved your goal of being an empty movie about nothing more than it sucks being cold all the time. D