Jeremy Saulnier’s previous two films gained notoriety not only for their gritty violence, but also a sequence of colour based titles that seemed to be building into some kind of spiritual trilogy. Instead, for his third and most ambitious film, Saulnier ditches colour entirely, moving from the dusty interiors of his previous work to the wide, near-monochrome Alaskan expanses that Hold the Dark calls home. It’s a massive increase in scope for the director, as well as his first adapted screenplay, a transition that is only patchily successful, always atmospheric but also often getting lost in its own opaque mysteries.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to No Country For Old Men, Hold the Dark’s grim and violent story follows three perspectives. One strand follows lawman Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) in way over his head, another centres on near-silent and enigmatic terminator Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), and caught in the middle of it all is bewildered hunter Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright). Core is initially invited to Alaska by Vernon’s wife Medora (Riley Keough) to investigate the taking of their son by a pack of wolves, but quickly realises that things in this remote corner of the world are not what they seem.
For the first two thirds of the film, these intermingled stories seem compelling, and Saulnier and writer Macon Blair, tackling the difficult original book by William Giraldi, craft a slow burning, immersive atmosphere of sinister isolation and possible supernatural involvement. But, as the end approaches, it becomes clear that there won’t be any satisfying answers to the questions that have been skilfully asked. It all just devolves in hollow symbolism as character motivations fly out the window in a hail of nihilism, the brutal deaths leading up this suddenly discarded as irrelevant.
This brutality is handled well. Saulnier has already proved his knack for visceral, realistic violence and an artfully composed murder by arrow is one of Hold the Dark’s standout shots. There is also a decent stretch of fantastic wolf footage, sometimes even separate from the story but always completely captivating, letting us in on the often savage survival techniques of these powerful beasts in a deeply inhospitable environment. A sustained shootout is the film’s central set piece, and though it is impressively pulled off, it also strains believability and drags on to the point of getting repetitive and indulgent. Like some other passion projects this year, Hold the Dark is funded and released by Netflix and, once again, their purported complete creative freedom for filmmakers has its downsides.
Performances run the whole spectrum, from a layered and involving turn by Wright as the film’s heart to a confusing and blank display by Keough right down to some downright awful acting on the part of the supporting cast. Hold the Dark is certainly Saulnier’s most technically impressive movie, and features a neatly unnerving score, but in expanding his focus he’s bitten off more than he can chew, leaving us with a fascinatingly original but deeply flawed experiment.