Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Director Jeremy Saulnier specializes in dragging his characters out of their worlds and leaving them out of their depths. Over the course of his three previous films — Murder Party, Blue Ruin, and Green Room — he’s developed a reputation for intense stories punctuated with startling violence, but none of the intensity would be possible and none of the violence would be meaningful if he weren’t so focused on stories about people who are ill-equipped to handle either. In Murder Party, a lonely man follows up on a Halloween party invitation and discovers he’s literally there to be killed for kicks. In Blue Ruin, a trauma victim attempts to avenge his parents, even though he’s supremely unprepared for the level of planning and ruthlessness that will be necessary. And in Green Room, a punk band witnesses a murder at a skinhead bar, and a neo-Nazi leader (played by Patrick Stewart) attempts to kill them all to cover up the event.
In all three cases, the protagonists are unsuited for and inexperienced with violence, and they’re up against antagonists who are, to varying degrees, better equipped to handle lethal force. But in all three of these movies, the protagonists eventually, necessarily find a kind of temporary peace with murder — or at least a capacity to go further than they ever expected to defend themselves.
Saulnier’s latest, Hold the Dark — a Netflix-funded adaptation of William Giraldi’s novel of the same name, scripted by his frequent production partner and Blue Ruin star Macon Blair — mostly fits the pattern. An outsider is drawn into an environment where he doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t understand the people. When extreme violence breaks out, he’s at a loss for how to comprehend or process it. But Hold the Dark is Saulnier’s most enigmatic and meditative film to date. His previous three films all work toward a point of catharsis, where innocent people pushed too far beyond the bounds of civilization learn to fight back. In Hold the Dark, there’s no accepting or embracing what happens, and there’s no wish-fulfillment moment of satisfaction at the end. There’s only that eponymous darkness.
What’s the genre?
Straight drama, with recognizable nods to wilderness survival adventures and traditional horror.
What’s it about?
Author and animal behaviorist Russell Core (Westworld star Jeffrey Wright) has a trauma in his past: he was once called upon to track down and kill a wild wolf that had fatally attacked a child. He wrote about the experience, apparently with a wide enough reach that it draws Medora Sloane (American Honey and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Riley Keough) to write to him, asking him to come to her small Alaskan town of Keelut to repeat the process. Her son Bailey was recently taken by wolves, and as she explains to Russell, “My husband will come home from the war soon, and I must have something to show him.” She doesn’t expect Russell to find Bailey alive, but she does want something like revenge.
But very shortly after Russell arrives, he’s subjected to the kind of eerie portents and dire warnings that so often greet outsiders digging into other people’s business in small towns. It almost immediately becomes clear that wolves didn’t kill Bailey, and Medora wanted him for a different purpose entirely. Russell isn’t a law enforcement agent or an investigator, and he has no particular skills that would let him uncover what’s really going on. But he falls in with local detective Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) as the situation unfolds — particularly as Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from an overseas combat posting and begins to seek his own terrible revenge.
What’s it really about?
Hold the Dark feels like the umpteenth variant on the “small towns hold infinite hidden darkness” theme that stretches from strange film classics like 1968’s The Swimmer to iconic TV series like Twin Peaks to modern films like George Clooney’s unbalanced Suburbicon. The story certainly plays up the distant, forbidding Alaskan setting, where the sun sets at 3:30PM, the temperatures are lethal, and Medora regards Russell’s ordinary outdoor survival gear with something between contempt and pity. But even more so, Hold the Dark presents Keelut as the kind of place so removed from familiar civilization that literally anything could happen, from fairy tale mysticism causing a child’s death to ordinary human beings performing incomprehensible, unnatural acts.
But the theme extends beyond “small towns are evil” into a broader, queasier suggestion that some acts of evil are just beyond comprehension because some people are beyond comprehension. At one point in Hold the Dark, a character prepares for a massive act of violence by explaining his position quietly and at length to Detective Marium who tries to talk him down but gradually sees that’s impossible. But even with his thorough justification in place, it’s hard to comprehend what immediately follows. By the end of the film, the motivations in place for the film’s main characters are even harder to comprehend, unless, like Russell, the audience accepts that humans are moved by unbudging instincts, which may not have anything to do with human laws or logic. The theme could be “the human heart is unknowable,” or it just as well could be “people are, deep down, just animals.”
Is it good?
Hold the Dark is by far Saulnier’s least satisfying film, in the sense that it doesn’t follow familiar patterns and doesn’t offer a pat or cathartic conclusion. Arguably, that’s because Russell is an outsider viewing the action from a removed vantage and never really breaking past that distant point of observation. Past his first awful discovery early in the film, he stops feeling like Hold the Dark’s protagonist: he’s too passive, too helpless in the face of what’s happening, and too out of his depth in terms of the legal, social, and psychological issues playing out. This isn’t a procedural where he uncovers who committed the crime, and it isn’t a horror film where he and the antagonist face off against each other. He’s just a witness — and not a hugely effective one at that.
Arguably, Hold the Dark’s real protagonist is Vernon Sloane, a grim and quiet veteran who’s introduced gunning down militants in Iraq with unbudging precision then murdering a fellow serviceman without ever changing expression. Vernon takes most of the responsibility for moving the story forward, and he’s the one with a concrete goal. But Skarsgård plays him as forbiddingly internal and inaccessible, and there’s nothing there for audiences to latch onto in order to decide how to take him: whether his cause has understandable and righteous elements or he’s just another psychopath with a knife, a mask, and an inner landscape that viewers can only intuit.
That’s a problem for the story because events move entirely outside of Russell’s control, and they don’t always move with Saulnier’s usual sense of tension. Hold the Dark is comparatively slow, sometimes to the point of feeling meditative and melancholy about its action. At other times, it’s a breathtaking action film, playing out with intense urgency. But after a central act of expressive, defiant destruction, the film never again reaches the same peak. Once the stakes are defined on a town-wide scale, with horrific results, a comedown to a more personal place between Russell and Vernon is a harder sell — all the more so since it isn’t really personal. Vernon doesn’t care about Russell, who’s just another bystander to him. Russell doesn’t know Vernon, and he lacks a meaningful connection to him. By the time the film hits its endgame, neither of them feel particularly significant to the other, which makes the film feel like an abstract commentary on the mystery of other people, rather than the character piece a cast of this familiarity and talent could have brought to the table.
Viewers will have to be content with the fact that this is Saulnier’s most visually beautiful and accomplished film, thanks to a striking wilderness setting full of icy mountains and glacial rivers. It’s easy for the characters to feel insignificant in these surroundings where the intense chill seems to sublimate off the screen and everything about the icy woods and the oppressive dark seems inimical to life. Wolves are featured prominently throughout the story: as the initial scapegoat, in the form of a mask the Sloanes both wear, as the focus of Russell’s sympathies, and as an ongoing threat and metaphor. But the wolves always seem more comfortable in these threatening surroundings than Russell and his fellow humans do. This is a film about the wilds — internal and external — and Saulnier shoots both the natural and the human side of the story with his usual sharp instincts for startling and engaging images. The story doesn’t entirely hold together after the fact — in particular, it feels like it discards Russell without ever really building a memorable identity for him — but as is typical for Saulnier, it’s shocking and moving while it’s actually going on.
What should it be rated?
There’s some nudity and that frank, abrupt Saulnier violence, particularly in one extended scene of gory mayhem. It’s a distinct and bloody R.
How can I actually watch it?
Hold the Dark arrived on Netflix US on September 28th.