Hold the Dark

4 out of 5

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Ah, contrary fellow that I am, my most consistent and satisfying Jeremy Saulnier experience seems to be the one that has most divided his followers.  But my opinion on the film – that, overall, it was a wonderfully exhausting, if oblique, viewing – is certainly shared (and that linked review uses the descriptor ‘patiently unsettling,’ which is just damn perfect).  Hold the Dark, for me, is the movie that makes me want to stand by Saulnier; I don’t know if I would have sought out his other films based on any single preceding one, had they not all been available and well reviewed by the time I hopped on with Green Room; but I know that whatever follows this – this expansive, bravely somber flick – I will be on board.

In Hold the Dark, writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is requested out to a small Alaskan village by Medora (Riley Keough), who has just lost her child to wolves, and wishes to use Core’s written-about tracking abilities to seek out the offending animal and prevent the situation from repeating – her son the third child gone missing to the same.

Medora, if that name wasn’t enough to already cast the character as a proxy for some otherness, speaks entirely in cryptic prose; while the whole movie exists in a near joyless bubble of unspoken lore, it maintains glimmers of humanity through Wright and, later, police chief Donald (James Badge Dale); front-loading the movie with Medora’s weirdness understandably sets the tonal stage, but it’s also where immersion is easily broken: no one speaks like this, your brain says, and yet Core takes it in stride.

Still, somber tone set, and this is early on, after all; once Russell proceeds into the mountains, and darkness descends on the town, the movie begins to build its simmering sense of evil and masterfully maintains that near-boil throughout the rest of its two hours.

Saulnier (and his constant filmic companion, writer Macon Blair, who unsurprisingly pops up here in a small role) sit and ponder themes of loss, and of disconnection.  The violence and tension ratchet up at key points later on, when Medora disappears and her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from the war in Iraq, on a similar hunt for his boy’s killer and haunted in his own peculiar way, with Russell stumbling along on the fringes, a witness, or a participant, or a shadow…  It’s terrifying for no direct reason, and I loved that the film kept its character’s motivations way on the sidelines, making events feel truly primal and unavoidable.

Which, yes, has been something of a theme in Saulnier’s work, as cycled through various genres, but its most poignant in Hold the Dark, when it’s laid bare against its cold, wintry setting, and the near-mute struggles of its protagonist to make sense of this life that seems to be having its way with him…