I’m not sure if the cult of Jeremy Saulnier will grow exponentially with Hold The Dark, but I’m quite certain it will deepen. The reviews for his new Netflix film don’t match the heights of The Green Room or his indie breakthrough, Blue Ruin. Instead of heading in a more obvious direction, Saulnier has made sort of a grim tone poem. One about the cold, dark wild of Northern Alaska, and more significantly, that same frigid savagery which lives in the hearts of humans.
The film starts out fairly conventionally. The great Jeffrey Wright is hired by the ever-enigmatic Riley Keough to find the wolves that killed her son. Early on, you can feel shades of Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. A man crossing the tundra to go mano-a-lupine. The interesting thing is that’s merely a ruse. Hitchcock’s McGuffin.
When we find out the truth about Keough’s son, the horror of it is far greater than we might have anticipated. You might look back and think you should have seen it coming, but I doubt it. This revelation sets the film on an entirely new track. As Keough disappears and her husband-soldier (played formidably by Alexander Skarsgard) returns home from the Middle East, the film becomes on the surface a revenge thriller.
Skarsgard’s character has one of the more memorable introductions in recent years. Stopping the rape of a Middle Eastern woman by a fellow American soldier in shocking fashion. It lets you know that he is a man with a code, even if his standard is inscrutable to outsiders and decidedly dangerous.
Most of Hold The Dark is surprisingly quiet. Especially when looking back on the mayhem of The Green Room. It suits the film though. Which is more elegiac in tone and terribly forlorn. It’s still a thriller, but those thrills are muted, to the point of being as dark as the early Alaskan sunset. Still, there is one shootout at the house of a native-born accomplice of Skarsgard’s grieving father that is unlike anything I’ve seen since the bank robbery in Michael Mann’s Heat.
It’s an extended set piece that could almost be set to opera, were it not so brutal and realistic in composition. It’s shocking. Not only because of the relative silence that came before and follows after, but for its merciless nature. Every bullet is as “felt” as is cinematically possible. It is an extraordinary sequence. Terrifying in its relentlessness and crushing in its result. The body count is remarkable but believable. The scars on the community of indigenous folk and the white townspeople will surely resonate for years.
The final stretch of the film plays out like a turgid race against time. Will Wright get to Keough before Skarsgard? Will anyone else pay an ultimate price? And just when you expect the film to go exactly in that way, it makes another surprise move. After all the brutality of the film’s first 100 plus minutes, the finale is about, of all things, a kind of mercy. I kid you not, it reminded me more than a little of Michael Cimino’s closing sequence of The Deer Hunter.
A sort of respect is gained between the two hunters. Perhaps most astonishingly, there is forgiveness between husband and wife for that which is unforgiveable. And when the wolves return, the animals that have been – to some degree – scapegoated, make a surprising decision of their own when faced with a wounded, nearly unconscious character.
In some ways, Hold The Dark is like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had it been written by Jack London. Which I suppose is a heady thing to say about a film, but this one earns it. I think to many Hold The Dark may end up being seen as a difficult film. Perhaps transitional in the career of Saulnier. I think, despite its relatively modest reviews, the film’s esteem will grow over time. When the expectations coming off The Green Room fade, and it’s merely viewed on its own merits.
When that happens, I would not be surprised if people come to the conclusion that Hold The Dark is Saulnier’s best film. I, for one, have reached that conclusion already. It will be interesting to see how many join me in the coming years. I’m betting the number won’t be small.