‘Hold the Dark’ is a Slow, Unnerving Thriller About Humanity Caught Between the Natural and Unnatural

Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark, and adaptation of a novel of the same name by William Giraldi, isn’t an explicitly or perhaps even implicitly political film, though on occasion throughout the first act, it does offer such a vague impression. In the first interaction between Jeffery Wright’s Russell Core and Riley Keough’s Medora Sloane, Russell notes that his daughter is a teacher in Anchorage, prompting Medora to exhaustively, yet emphatically proclaim that it doesn’t represent the real Alaska – perhaps a reference to the age-old cultural conflict between city dwellers and rural folk undoubtedly colored by modern era partisan politics. Meanwhile, Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) is serving in the war, standing atop a gun truck manning the artillery with his face completely cloaked with his helmet, goggles and scarf, indicating a diminishing of humanity all but confirmed tangentially when a fellow soldier takes a selfie with the still burning remains of the people and vehicle he’s just blown to smithereens.

Perhaps if you also watched this over the weekend after this past week’s political firestorm, it may just be current events influencing our perspective as to the film’s hidden meanings, though given Saulnier’s last film it didn’t seem too out of left field a proposition. But as the film ambles through the brooding darkness of its material accentuated by occasionally strange human behavior and inevitably punctuated by sharp turns in the story, you see there’s something else at play supporting its Taylor Sheridan-esque simplicity in character and narrative as well as overwhelming bleakness, particularly the kind handed down by the setting’s harshness. And in context with Saulnier’s two previous films, we recognize more familiar traits and thematic underpinnings buoying it all, specifically the confining feelings of desperation that breed violence in those who are or feel on the ropes.

Though most predominantly throughout the narrative there exists a prevailing dialogue about what constitutes human nature, particularly as it relates to its divergence from the animal kingdom and animal instinct as well as the statistical rarity of predatory animals acting out of vengeance; of course, inevitably asking the question of whether or not revenge is something simply, if singularly encoded into human DNA. Through multiple characters and circumstances, the film emphatically answers ‘yes,’ and for two hours doesn’t go much further than that. There’s an intriguing addendum to this concept, of revenge being a ritualistic, perhaps biological necessity for those who’ve endured great personal trauma rather than it merely being a “justified” act, and while it may help us understand some characters’ psychological make-up a little more clearly, in terms of narrative and theme, it doesn’t feel like much of a deviation from the original idea to indicate a sense of ideological evolution, adapting as the plot turns on yet another dime to relentlessly surprise us.

In all fairness, this is the sort of project more intent on bludgeoning us with nihilism undercut every now and then by the vaguest intimations at hope. Just as it stays on a consistent intellectual train of thought, it remains purposefully affixed emotionally to dreariness and mental exhaustion complementing its environment’s unforgiving nature. From the beginning, we encounter characters who’ve been psychologically drained by varying circumstance, and their respective actors match this tone with fatigued vocal intonations. They’ve resigned themselves to their fate and the doom and gloom infecting it, yet they persist with hopeful thoughts and actions almost reflexively, if also because it’s what would be expected of them. Such underlines nearly every character interaction from Russell and Medora’s first scene together to the climactic confrontation, and in particular puts an empathetically, dishearteningly human face to revenge and brutal violence far removed from the usual evil and madness.

As a slow-burning mood piece with slight thriller/horror undercurrents affecting how we digest the proceedings, Hold the Dark is its own departure from Saulnier’s past works, both of which were undeniable, unabashed genre films with their own subtle twists on the usual formula. Here, the material allows Saulnier and even screenwriter/frequent collaborator Macon Blair to flex more explicitly dramatic muscles, employing a combination of narrative and craft to keep the well of despair from running dry and wearing out its viewers, though such will be an inevitability for some not accustomed to this sort of one-note tonal approach. While its aesthetic near constantly echoes the darker tendencies of last year’s Wind River, it nonetheless feels organically of Saulnier’s wheelhouse, though this time applied to material both typical and atypical given his filmmaking tendencies.

And despite its length and the few turns carefully spliced in at key intervals to maintain a steady sense of momentum, the story itself is quite minimalist, which may fit perfectly into Saulnier’s repertoire given the equally bare bones Blue Ruin and Green Room, but on occasion shows why it doesn’t fit this project quite as well. One particularly elongated shootout scene may hit with a razor-sharp edge the moment it lands, but grows duller the longer it wears on without building upon a sense of a nearing conclusion, though it ultimately does as soon as Blair and Saulnier decide to back away and hone the steel, prepping for the next attack whenever it may come. Thankfully, however, these sort of pacing issues aren’t in too noticeable an abundance as the film enters its final stages, capping off its curious, perplexing view of humanity with one final, though subtle and perhaps expected turn of the screw.

It’s very much the sort of film where you’ll get more out of it if you appreciate Saulnier’s style and catalogue and recognize where he’s trying to diverge, even if marginally so, from the usual genre film refinement, and if you don’t, well, Netflix will surely be uploading many a fright flick more suited to your tastes in the coming weeks – I even hear Shudder’s selection is quite decent if you’re looking to take advantage of another free trial. On its own, it may not feel like one, but in context with Saulnier’s past efforts, this is an interesting experiment probing the limits of atmosphere and genre classification fluidity, as if this adaptation were an exercise in studying varying viewer perspectives as to how each scene and the narrative they construct feel. We can’t always have a band of young punks fighting back against Sir Patrick Stewart-led neo-Nazis, but Alexander Skarsgård donning a wolf mask and going on a rampage isn’t a bad follow-up.

3.5/5

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