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On Netflix: HOLD THE DARK (2018)

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HOLD THE DARK
(US/Switzerland - 2018)

Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Written by Macon Blair. Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope, Peter McRobbie, Tantoo Cardinal, Macon Blair, Jonathan Whitesell, Savonna Spracklin, Maureen Thomas, Sean Hoy, Brian Martell, Beckam Crawford. (Unrated, 125 mins)

Adapted from William Giraldi's 2015 novel, the bitterly cold and endlessly snowy Netflix Original HOLD THE DARK is the latest bleak, grim thriller from BLUE RUIN and GREEN ROOM director Jeremy Saulnier. It's the filmmaker's most ambitious work yet, with some stunning cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, jaw-dropping aerial shots that would look incredible on a big screen, and one of the most masterfully-staged and brilliantly-executed shootouts to come down the pike in quite some time. This long sequence, with its tension escalating to unrelenting terror and punctuated by bursts of shocking and extremely graphic violence, is the centerpiece of HOLD THE DARK and as a result, what follows can't help but pale in comparison, especially since Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair (the star of BLUE RUIN and the writer/director of I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE) jettison the more procedural, straightforward plotting of Giraldi's novel to go for something more allegorical and ambiguous. In a way, it's gussying up what could be a 90-minute commercial thriller and turning it into a somber slow-burner that runs just over two hours and veers toward the arthouse, giving it the distinct feel of something A24 would pick and open nationwide just to piss people off. It often doesn't feel too far removed from last year's sleeper hit WIND RIVER, and though it has that distinct sense of Saulnier dread and despair, it could also be seen as what might happen if Taylor Sheridan remade WOLFEN.






In the small village of Keelut in the northernmost reaches of Alaska, three children have been taken away by wolves and are presumed eaten. One grieving mother is Medora Slone (Riley Keough), whose six-year-old son Bailey (Beckam Crawford) is the latest victim. Shell-shocked and alone--her soldier husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) is in Fallujah and she hasn't yet notified him of Bailey's death--she sends a letter to renowned nature writer and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), imploring him to track down and kill the wolf who took Bailey. Core arrives in Keelut and is almost as much of a broken soul as Medora, estranged from his grown daughter and hoping to visit her in Anchorage, where she teaches. There's an interesting subtext to these early scenes that show man is the interloper and wasn't meant for these parts, and while he agrees to track the wolf pack, he reminds Medora that "the natural order of things doesn't warrant revenge." Meanwhile, in Fallujuh, Vernon--after doing something that's the first of the film's many jolting shocks--is sent home after taking a sniper's bullet in the neck, and...


Well, that's about all the plot that can be summarized without going into significant spoilers. In short, Core has been summoned to Keelut under misleading circumstances. There's also, in no particular order, a padlocked cellar housing something unexpected that sends the story in a completely different direction, Vernon's reaction to his son's death sending him on a quest for revenge with his friend and fellow grieving father Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), the Eskimo locals deeming the "Nordic-looking" Medora possessed by a wolf-demon known as a "tourmaq," and a melancholy Core reluctantly finding himself teamed with Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), the weary sheriff of Emery, the nearest thing resembling a modern town, and under whose jurisdiction Keelut falls. HOLD THE DARK is a film that's not eager to wrap things up in a conventional way, and that sometimes works against it. The ending is ambiguous to the point of frustration, and Saulnier and Blair seem unsure of where to take the narrative after the truly harrowing shootout that rivals anything in GREEN ROOM and is easily the most impressive single sequence of the filmmaker's career thus far. It's admirable that they don't spell things out like the novel did, particularly when it comes to Vernon and Medora's marriage, but there's clearly something "off" from the start, and that's even before a sleeping Core is stirred awake by a nude Medora wearing nothing but a ceremonial wolf mask as she grabs his hand and forces him to choke her. HOLD THE DARK establishes a parallel with the Slones and the wolf pack, and it's interesting to look back at the film once it's over and see how Saulnier and Blair have laid the reveals in plain sight all along. While that makes for some clever twists, it also feels like HOLD THE DARK is trotting out too many enigmatic bells and whistles in an attempt to be more highbrow than it needs to be. That said, what's here is an impressive step up in scope for Saulnier and Blair, and the cast brings their A-game, particularly Wright (why doesn't he get more leads?) and Dale, who's never been better. Part mystery, part culture-clash drama (Cheeon has a serious beef with the Emery police after it took an entire day for them to investigate his daughter's disappearance), and part horror film, HOLD THE DARK sucks you in and keeps your attention, and its strong points far outweigh its occasional hiccups.


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