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There’s something rather ironic about director Jeremy Saulnier’s most ambitious and cinematic film to date premiering on Netflix. His previous work, from breakout moody revenge thriller Blue Ruin to grisly punks v neo-Nazis horror Green Room, has hardly been lacking in scope but with his latest, there’s a definite level up in terms of what he’s trying to achieve. In Hold the Dark, he moves between continents, time periods, viewpoints and genres, delivering inarguably his most audacious film to date (in a recent interview, he referred to its “epic scale”).
The film starts with a disappearance. In a remote, ramshackle village in northern Alaska, Bailey is the third child to go missing, presumably taken and killed by nearby wolves. His mother Medora (Riley Keough) contacts retired naturalist and author Russell (Jeffrey Wright) after reading that he once killed a wolf, imploring him to bring her some sort of justice. The two develop a strange kinship, linked by loneliness, but as Russell investigates, he finds that things aren’t as they seem and when Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from serving in Iraq, events reach a violent boiling point.
If that synopsis sounds intentionally vague then trust me, it can’t be vague enough because one of the primary joys of actor-writer-director Macon Blair’s densely plotted script, based on the acclaimed novel by William Giraldi, is its uneasy unpredictability. To enjoy the film on its own terms, one should know very little about the mechanics going in. But while the shifts in genre, plot and location do prove intriguing for much of the film, they ultimately result in a feeling of mild dissatisfaction, the whole never quite the sum of its parts.
Working from his first ever adapted screenplay, Saulnier and longtime creative partner Blair feel somewhat overawed by their source material, unsure how to squeeze such a weighty, difficult novel into a compelling two-hour runtime. Taken as individual vignettes, there are some standout sequences, whether they’re eerily effective mood-setters or seat-edge set pieces of shock and awe. Saulnier, as he proved in the ferociously entertaining Green Room, is a skilled choreographer of both heart-pumping suspense and queasily well-realised violence and he engineers some fantastic jaw-dropping moments, including one unforgettably savage shootout.
As shown in his previous films, Saulnier is fascinated by the breadline and those who live close to it and again he’s able to convey stark hardship while avoiding grotesquery and cliche. But he’s also wrestling with an almost fairytale level of mysticism and the tonal shift jars. The latter can feel like a way of easily explaining some of the less understandable decision-making and character motivations, despite them taking place in a grounded setting. As previously mentioned, there’s a lot going on and such eclecticism is sometimes wearying. The opaqueness that’s initially arresting doesn’t lead us to anywhere that’s quite as enthralling as we’d hope, the haunting mood wearing off during the confusing third act and a final emotional swerve not landing with the requisite impact.
However, it’s a pleasure to see Wright, an ever-dependable actor who’s too often wasted, given a rare lead role and he’s on top form, quietly selling us on a man who clearly internalises so much. It’s a deeply felt performance and while the characters around him might suffer from far less depth, there are still impactful turns from Keough and James Badge Dale as the local sheriff.
Hold the Dark is clearly an all-consuming passion project for Saulnier and for many directors, partnering with Netflix feels like a safe way to share one’s ultimate vision, the creative constraints far less restrictive yet the budget remaining expansive. But it can also lead to overindulgence, something we’ve also seen in Duncan Jones’s Mute, Darryl Hannah’s Paradox and David Michôd’s War Machine, and while it’s far, far better than any of those, it still feels messily unrefined. Saulnier’s film is filled with so much, too much, even, and given that a lot of it works, it’s frustrating that a lot of it doesn’t.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Hold the Dark review – Netflix chiller aims high, lands somewhere in middle | Toronto film festival 2018