Hold the Dark (2018)
Written by Macon Blair
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Russell Core is a retired naturalist who specialized in wolves. He even wrote a book about them. It’s his book that gets the attention of Alaskan Medora Slone, a woman whose son has been taken by the wolves in her rural community. Her husband, Vernon, is serving in Iraq utterly unaware of what has happened to his son. Medora insists she wants something to show she took revenge for their child. Vernon is injured though and shipped back home. Russell discovers that he’s been lied to and there is more the child’s disappearance than just the wolves. A strange bond exists between Medora and Russell that seems connected to the desolate haunting landscape.
I am a big Jeremy Saulnier fan. Blue Ruin and Green Room are masterclasses in quiet, realistic horror. Blue Ruin is especially good, a slow-burning personal horror film about revenge. Saulnier is quite good at establishing strong, foreboding atmospheres in his movies and Hold the Dark is no exception. From the opening scenes, this bleak Alaskan wilderness feels like a place where evil is growing. Hold the Dark lives up to the grim standard established in Saulnier’s other pictures, but it has some significant problems that cause it to be his weakest film to date.
Hold the Dark is based on a novel and it feels like that due to the plot splitting into two paths. Neither character’s path is explored to a full extent, and this makes the conclusion feel unrewarding. I love an ambiguous ending, but the lack of clarity in Hold the Dark’s finale is a complete failure of storytelling. There are narrative twists along the way, but they don’t feel relevant and don’t add up to anything. Part of Saulnier’s other two movies is that they present the audience with brutal events and paint a grim world but ultimately have something to say about human nature. Hold the Dark essentially ends with a lot still not made clear or even alluded to in a comprehensible way.
Russell is a character who seems to come across crucial moments in the story, never taking charge and making choices. He happens to discover the secret Medora has kept from him since his arrival. He stumbles across a shootout between police and a wanted local. Russell never has real agency in the events of the movie. I would assume he plays a more active role in the novel the picture is based on, but for the adaptation, he is a completely useless character.
Vernon, on the other hand, makes choices and has a goal, to find Medora. While he has more momentum than Russell, he too stumbles into situations that introduce new characters only to kill them off moments later. So when someone dies in this film, there is little to no dramatic weight because you’ve only seen them in a scene or two. And because people get killed off so quickly, the film is continually introducing new characters. Vernon receives little development beyond his introductory scene. There is an encounter with a man at a mining camp who remembers Vernon as a child. He begins to say how Vernon’s father brought him there because something was wrong with his son, but then he dies, and we never get any more information on that.
Medora is a total enigma and not in a good way. Riley Keough is cast in the role, an actress I have come to appreciate in the last few years. I was looking forward to seeing what she did with this character and about 20 minutes in she disappears from the movie entirely. She’ll show up again at the end, but there is zero resolution for her role and no closure on the very mystery that has been driving the entire movie.
Hold the Dark ends up being a significant dud on Saulnier’s trajectory, one I am confident he will recover from. The biggest flaw with the movie is the script’s desire to adapt the source material faithfully. You can feel the chapters with alternating perspectives as you watch. The pacing of the film feels literary instead of cinematic, and that’s a significant negative. There isn’t enough time to develop the various plots and subplots so a more liberal scalpel should have been applied, paring the movie down to its core elements. While visually immersive and moody, Hold the Dark is not a movie you should immediately seek out.