Thursday, September 27, 2018

Saulnier’s Hold the Dark

It wasn’t dingoes that took Medora Slone’s child. It was wolves. At least, everyone believes her, because this thing has happened before. However, that will not placate her husband when he returns from serving in Fallujah. Although his wrath will surely fall on his wife, there is no telling who else might feel his rage. For someone as ferocious as Vernon Slone, the loss of his son could just be an excuse for a bloody rampage. Ultimately, there is no why. Vernon is just wild and violent. That could describe several characters in Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark (trailer here), which premieres on Netflix this Friday.

Medora has summoned broken down naturalist Dr. Russell Core, a noted wolf advocate, hoping he will track and kill the wolves that presumably carried off her young child to his death. Although he is a conservationist, he keenly empathizes with the grieving mother. He also senses something is a little off with her. That intuition is born out when she disappears right before her husband’s return. She has her reasons.

Instead of tracking wolves, Core helps local sheriff Donald Marium track Vernon and Medora. The former leaves a trail of dead bodies that are quite easy to follow. However, the more elusive Medora has set off into the dark heart of the Alaskan wilderness.

Hold the Dark has even more carnage than Saulnier’s previous films, Blue Ruin and Green Room, but it is loaded sinister spiritualism and heavy allegorical symbolism. Yes, people are wolves—and even worse. Still, it must be stipulated, Saulnier crafts an eerie mood that is hard to shake.

For better or worse, the film peaks about midway through when Cheeon, one of Vernon’s Native Alaska drinking buddies, ignites a massive shootout with Marium’s deputies, to provide a distraction. This might be the most intense and horrifyingly brutal gun fight ever staged on film.

Yet, there is also deeply humanistic element to the film, thanks to Jeffrey Wright’s performance as the profoundly world-weary Core. It is painful to watch him gasp, wheeze, and stew in his regret and remorse. Similarly, James Badge Dale’s Marium gives us a grounded, tragically decent everyman figure to identify with.

On the other side of the spectrum, Alexander Skarsgard is big, hulking, and quietly creepy, totally footing the bill of a villain who evokes the supernatural. The chameleon-like Riley Keogh is also quite unsettling as Medona, but Julian Black Antelope overshadows them both as the lethally resentful Cheeon.

Although Hold the Dark is clearly intended as a meditation on violence, it remains inscrutable on many levels. There is no satisfying explanation for the death Vernon leaves in his wake. He is meant to be something akin to a force of nature or a mythical beast. That is both frustrating and unnerving, much like the film itself. A little less portentousness would have made for a tighter, tauter ride, but it is still clearly the work of an assured stylist. Recommended for its intangible spookiness and its shocking centerpiece, Hold the Dark starts streaming tomorrow (9/28) on Netflix and also opens in New York, at the IFC Center.