Hold the Dark is brutal and bleak Arctic noir. A slightly overlong step down from Saulnier’s previous work, it’s still a masterfully-crafted chunk of chilly madness.
Through blue ruins and green rooms, Jeremy Saulnier has led us by the hand to what Stephen King has called “the body beneath the sheet” – the acute sense of mortality that the best genre fiction brings you close enough to touch. Hold the Dark, released on Netflix today, is another such tale, crafted with airtight efficiency, and set against the frozen backdrop of a remote Arctic where firelight tosses roaming shadows across icy walls and blood stains the snow.
A boy is missing from a far-flung Alaskan village. His mother, Medora (Riley Keough), believes he has been snatched by wolves, and so summons a retired naturalist, Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), to hunt and kill the creature responsible. At the other end of the world, in a purposefully nebulous Middle Eastern sandpit, Vernon Sloane (Alexander Skarsgard), the boy’s father, is shot in the neck and sent home. By the time he arrives, Medora is missing too.
To say any more about the plot would be to spoil it, but it morphs quickly from a survivalist tale into a potboiler, and then again into something else. It incorporates elements of Greek tragedy and indigenous folklore; borrows from the construction of slashers and action blockbusters; includes carved lupine masks and rifles and arrows and spurting wounds. Vernon’s friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) is a man of violence and the out-of-his-depth local sheriff (James Badge Dale) is committed to its prevention – a thankless task in a Saulnier film, of which Hold the Dark is the weakest, and yet better than most others released this year all the same.
Hold the Dark excels in the usual ways. Saulnier is a master at this kind of thing. His films are nightmares that refuse to end when your eyes snap open. They’re all relentlessly grim variations on the same few themes of vengeance and violence and misery. They foreground bodily consequence in a way that few others, even the bloodiest, would ever dare to. The carnage isn’t fetishized, but so uncompromising that it’s almost real; when a bullet or an arrow pierces a jugular vein, you find your hand creeping along your neck, as though the wound is yours. Macon Blair, who wrote the screenplay, has a facility not just for dialogue, but for soliloquies of silence; he knows when to write nothing at all.
Saulnier also has a talent for nurturing suspense, guiding his actors and his audience towards physical and emotional extremes until chaos bursts from the seams in frothing, blood-tinged jets. And the reason Hold the Dark suffers slightly in comparison to Blue Ruin and Green Room is that it builds to a centrepiece so staggeringly well-constructed that the film has almost nowhere to go in its aftermath. There are loose ends to tie up, like tourniquets, on the way to a daringly inconclusive finale, but the film’s length begins to be felt in the latter half, and the feeling that it has peaked early never quite goes away.
Still, Hold the Dark is another mesmerising, haunting glimpse into the mind of a true auteur filmmaker whose work is always challenging, daring, and a little bit insane. Here, Saulnier has crafted a Freudian tale of terror that is steeped in history and marinated in mayhem, stretched wide and bare across an endless, pitiless wilderness. But at its festering core are the same death and darkness, as inevitable as ever, and closer all the time.