I feel ambivalent about “Hold the Dark”, a cold, brutal genre exercise which is admirable in technical aspects but too distant to engage me on the emotional level. While I was entertained by its atmosphere and performance to some degrees, I also became frustrated with how the movie adamantly remains murky and ambiguous throughout its 2-hour running time, and I was only left with a rather hollow impression in the end as wondering about several elusive things in its story.
During its first act, the movie succinctly establishes a moody situation surrounding its hero and other main characters. Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who has been known well as a wolf expert mainly via a book on his experience with wolves in wilderness, receives a letter from a young woman living in a remote rural town of Alaska, and it seems this woman, named Medora Sloane (Riley Keough), really needs his help even though he cannot do that much for her. Several days ago, her young son was disappeared, and it was assumed that her son was taken and then killed by wolves because a similar incident happened to other kid before that. Although there is no chance for her son’s survival at present, she asks Core to track down and then kill wolves responsible for her misery, and he reluctantly agrees to come to her town.
Right from when Core arrives in her town going through its cold, harsh wintry days, the movie immerses us into the icy, desolate mood hovering over the town and its few inhabitants. As nobody gives him any particular attention, Core goes to Medora’s house, and he gets to know a bit more about her as staying in her house. Her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) is currently absent because of his military service in Iraq, and she is clearly bitter about that while not notifying him of their son’s disappearance for herself yet. She also seems to hold herself barely behind her rather detached façade, and we later get an odd moment when she approaches closer to Core in a rather bizarre way when he is trying to sleep in her house.
On the next day, Core goes outside the town for finding any possible trail which may lead him to the wolves he is looking for, and the movie gives us the vivid shots of vast landscapes covered with snow and coldness as he slowly moves around in the wilderness outside the town. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who previously worked in “A Hijacking” (2012), “A War” (2015), and “Lean on Pete” (2017), did a commendable job of establishing the glum and chilly atmosphere around the screen, and the resulting moodiness is further emphasized by the ambient score by Brooke and Will Blair.
Eventually, Core confronts a pack of wolves who may be responsible for the disappearance of Medora’s son, and there is a tense scene where he must act quickly for avoiding getting attacked by these wolves. I have no idea on how they handled these wolves during the shooting of the movie, but I can tell you that these wolves look as threatening as the wolves in “The Grey” (2011).
Now you may think you know where the story is heading, but the movie takes a sudden left turn as Core manages to return to the town, and the mood becomes more nervous and disturbing as Vernon comes back from Iraq. As shown from one certain scene, Vernon can be violent and ruthless without any hesitation, and it soon becomes apparent to us that he is quite ready to do what he wants by any means necessary.
As the circumstance accordingly becomes more tense and violent, director Jeremy Saulnier jolts us with a series of sudden striking moments which did catch me off guard during my viewing. I appreciated how the movie takes another left turn with a totally unexpected moment of brutal violence, and I also admired how Saulnier and his crew deftly handle an intense action sequence revolving around Vernon’s friend, who turns out to be quite angry, violent, and ruthless just like Vernon.
However, the screenplay by Macon Blair, which is adapted from William Giraldi’s novel of the same name, does not provide enough emotional ground for all these and other well-made scenes in the film. As mostly observing its main characters from the distance, the movie does not delve much into their thoughts and feelings, and we come to care less about its story and characters as it solemnly trudges toward its expected finale.
Anyway, the main cast members of the movie did as much as they could do with their respective roles. Jeffrey Wright, who has been always dependable as one of the most interesting American performers since his breakthrough turn in “Basquiat” (1996), brings considerable gravitas to his rather passive character, and I also enjoyed watching a number of notable supporting performers surrounding Wright. While Alexander Skarsgård imbues his character with brooding intensity as required, Riley Keough is effectively ambiguous, and James Badge Dale, Julian Black Antelope, and Macon Blair are also fine in their supporting performance.
Overall, “Hold the Dark”, which is currently available on Netflix, is not entirely without good things to be appreciated, but it is relatively disappointing compared to Saulnier’s two previous works “Blue Ruin” (2013) and “Green Room” (2015). He is certainly a good filmmaker who knows how to establish a mood to engage us, but the movie lacks an emotional focus to maintain our interest, and that is a shame considering the palpable efforts from his cast and crew on the screen.