After just two indie films, Blue Ruin and cult favourite Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s name is synonymous with nerve-shredding horror and gallons of gore. His latest, Hold The Dark, takes him in a different direction but his fans – and there are many – can rest assured. The blood isn’t missing and the body count is comfortingly high. In fact, there can’t be many other films where so many people meet their demise by being shot in the face.
It’s the first of his films where he’s not responsible for the screenplay: that falls to his long-time collaborator, Macon Blair, who also has a small role in the movie. This is also Saulnier’s first foray onto Netflix but, curiously, a more expansive offering than the previous two: a bigger cast, a multi-faceted story, a longer running time and, perhaps crucially of all, the panoramic Alaskan wilderness, a setting which cries out for the big screen.
While the story takes the audience down different roads, its essence concentrates on the disappearance of a little boy in a remote Alaskan village. His mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough, in a much harsher environment than American Honey or Logan Lucky) is convinced a wolf pack made off with him and writes to author and wolf tracker, Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), asking him to kill the animals. Core goes in search of them, finds them but there’s no sign of the boy. On his return to the village, Medora has disappeared, which sets off a deadly train of events.
Feeding into that central narrative are other strands, such as the reason for the boy’s father being away from home. Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgard) is in the army in Iraq, where his moral compass is pretty much intact: it’s only when he returns home that it goes off kilter. There’s the indigenous residents of the village, particularly Illanaq (veteran native actor Tantoo Cardinal), something of a medicine woman, and Vernon’s friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), who takes centre stage for a long and bloody sequence halfway into the film. And there’s the cop leading the official investigation, Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), an ordinary family man caught up in extraordinary events.
Other films simmer under the surface, Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River in particular, with its similarly unforgiving landscape and climate, one that doesn’t welcome people, its remote and impoverished community and indigenous population. The parallels are unavoidable, even if native-specific issues are pushed into the background this time around. That vast landscape with its never-ending vistas and spectacular mountains takes you back to The Revenant, reinforcing that Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s cinematography isn’t best served by the small screen and deserves to be appreciated on a larger scale. The difficulties that go with the Alaskan absence of sunlight bring Insomnia to mind, although fish-out-of-water Wright never suffers in the same way as Pacino.
Saulnier goes for a starrier cast than usual and gets strong performances from all of them. The haunted, dark circle eyed Riley Keough, Alexander Skarsgard who is gathering a reputation for himself when it comes to playing handsome psychos and Wright as the bewildered outsider. However, the outstanding piece of acting is also the most low-key – James Badge Dale’s cop, an everyman with a real sense of humanity, and a character who reflects the measured, steady tone of the film.
Each of them takes turns in the film’s spotlight, so it’s only in the latter stages that it becomes clear whose story this really is. Those continual shifts, plus some unanswered questions in the storyline and a narrative that sometimes gives us more than we need, means Hold The Dark doesn’t always hold together as well as it should. But for what it represents in terms of Saulnier’s work, it is a large step forward. If only we could watch it on the type of screen it needs and deserves.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
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Thriller, Suspense, Crime | Netflix, 28 September (2018) | Dir. Jeremy Saulnier | Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Tantoo Cardinal , Julian Black Antelope.