The source material upon which Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark is based on already seems like the perfect ground for him to cover after Green Room, but coming after said film I’m also rather surprised by how much of a slog this also feels by comparison. But with a small body of work already you can see that he has established a keen eye for capturing violence on the camera, and he still retains that power in Hold the Dark, yet to a less straightforward degree. Being Saulnier’s first film to have been adapted from another source, there’s another constraint that comes on board with telling such a story for the screen but at the same time it’s so unlike Saulnier’s previous films – there’s at least something to admire about what he creates here. But the more it sits in my mind, the more I find that I’m just unsure of what to say about everything that had come prior. It feels so weird to have left a film of this sort feeling inconclusive about what it was supposedly trying to get across, but I still have faith that Jeremy Saulnier can retain such a skill to come back on the top again.
Set in Northern Alaska, the retired wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is called over to investigate cases of missing children that have been blamed on wolves within the small village of Keelut. This is already the perfect template for Saulnier to explore the inherent violence of human nature in relation to the nature of their worlds, yet I still find myself at odds with what Saulnier wants to make of everything that he has. With Green Room, it was clear enough from the first scene in which the Ain’t Rights play at a neo-Nazi club, and someone shouts “We don’t talk politics!” In the case of Hold the Dark, we have a narrative that starts out in Alaska, supposedly about a wolf hunter – but we jump over to a scene set in Iraq focusing on a soldier at war. Yet how these two stories come together just leaves me feeling conflicted what comes forward, because of how evident the disconnect is.
Hold the Dark moves at a much slower pace than Saulnier’s previous efforts – perhaps to its own fault in this case. Saulnier’s buildup works favourably when establishing the perfect environment for his own works, but there’s only a point to which the wait can become rather excessive, often to an underwhelming payoff. It’s an issue prevalent within the first half of the film, where we are starting to get a better picture of what Russell is getting himself into, but the jump over to the war in Iraq comes in such a jarring manner as we shift our focus over to Alexander Skarsgård’s character Vernon. We know as much as his marriage to Riley Keough’s character Medora, who was the one that called Russell over. But looking at how everything plays out from Russell’s eyes, the ugly nature of Hold the Dark should make for something more engrossing – yet the film only ever seems to have trouble with getting that necessary push when it starts.
When the film finally picks up, it starts to become everything that I’ve already come to love Saulnier for after Green Room. In this scene we have an extended shootout sequence, and it’s perhaps the best moment of the film because that’s where Saulnier lets all of his energy loose. It’s a moment where everything goes lean and never holds back, but because of everything that had come prior, it only led me to ask myself, “What took so long to get here?” If anything did keep any of this engaging, the discomfort that Saulnier builds up from the environment can already be felt on the inside thanks to a wonderful lead performance by Jeffrey Wright. But his place in the story feels akin to that of an observer, watching the world around him only resorting to the ugliest forms of violence among others because it is basic human nature as made clear by what this area represents in the world.
So what else is there to be said about what Hold the Dark is setting out for? It’s hard enough for me to tell because by the time the film had reached its own end I found most of this only to be inconclusive. There’s something great that could easily have been made from this, and Jeremy Saulnier already seemed exactly like the perfect man to bring material like this to the screen. And there’s no denying that there’s a lot to admire about Hold the Dark, especially in Jeffrey Wright’s performance, and Saulnier’s eye for violence as well as the cinematography. But what did all of this amount to? It’s ugly enough watching all of this unfold in your eyes, but at the same time it also feels so ugly to think about it.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via TIFF.
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Screenplay by Macon Blair, from the novel by William Giraldi
Produced by Russell Ackerman, Eva Maria Daniels, John Schoenfelder
Starring Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 125 minutes