Hold the Dark

HOLD THE DARK – not to be confused with Julie Taymor’s musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark – is a made-for-Netflix movie from 2018. I guess time flies, because I didn’t realize it had been that many years I’d been meaning to see it. It was on my list because it’s the fourth film from director Jeremy Saulnier (MURDER PARTY, BLUE RUIN, GREEN ROOM), and it’s written by Macon Blair, who appeared in all of those as an actor (and directed the upcoming remake of THE TOXIC AVENGER).

The best label I can come up with to describe this one is an Alaskan Gothic. It’s quiet and gloomy, with lots of snow, tiny fire-lit cabins, death and superstition. A movie that gives you the feeling of cold, wet socks inside your boots, and wearing a heavy winter coat indoors. It starts with a little boy playing outside in the small Alaskan village of Keelut, and a wolf approaches. And then the kid is gone – apparently not the first child to disappear around here. His mother Medora (Riley Keough, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) sends a letter to a wolf expert named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright, SHAFT) who once had to kill a wolf and wrote about it in a book she read. She wants him to kill this wolf before her husband Vernon (The Northman himself, Alexander Skarsgard) gets back from the war.

Russell isn’t some macho hunter, he’s a quiet, unassuming man who she knows from his writing will have sympathy for the wolf. He’s not from the area and doesn’t even have good boots – she loans him her husband’s. Before he starts his hunt, a neighbor named Illanaq (Tantoo Cardinal, WIND RIVER, WENDELL & WILD) gives him one of those destined-to-be-ignored cryptic warnings – she tells him he’s going the wrong way, and says Medora “knows evil”. Make of that what you will.

I always thought this was gonna be a quiet survival movie out in snowy nature, but it’s more complicated than that. Some weird shit going on here. For example when he’s sleeping in the cabin he hears Medora talking to herself in the bath tub and then she comes in naked wearing a wolf mask and cuddles up to him. He can’t bring himself to ask her what the deal is with that.

A bigger surprise though is when the story suddenly jumps to her husband in combat in Iraq. It caught me off guard partly because the time period was unclear and I was thinking maybe he was in Vietnam. I like the jarring change in climate and the casual horror of what’s going on. You know how BLUE RUIN obliterates all the glamour of revenge? This does something like that for War On Terror heroism scenes. We see Vern (no relation) taking out an insurgent, and whether or not it’s justified, it just doesn’t seem fair. He’s behind a mounted machine gun with sunglasses on, looking bored, putting no effort in at all, but punching hundreds of giant holes through this truck, setting the guy on fire as he flees, setting the truck on fire. Doing his job.

Later he comes across a fellow American soldier in the middle of raping a local, so he stabs the guy a bunch of times, hands the bloody knife to the woman, and leaves. Did a big thing but doesn’t make a big deal out of it. As he’s leaving, shots ring out from somewhere, and he gets hit on the neck. He’s very lucky in the sense that it don’t go into or through him, it just knicked his skin, but it’s a nasty one, gushing all kinds of blood, and he gets sent home.

On his hunt, Russell comes face to face with a pack of wolves chowing down on some dead wolf cubs. He doesn’t shoot them. If I understand correctly, he figures they couldn’t have ate these kids or they wouldn’t be desperate enough to eat their own. And he’s right about that. When he gets back to the cabin he can’t find Medora, but he does find her son’s not-eaten-by-wolves body in the basement, covered by a tarp.

He runs outside muttering “Help! The boy! The boy!” and I kinda thought everybody was gonna blame this strange outsider, but the neighbors seem to know what the deal is. He doesn’t have to explain himself. They figure that crazy white lady is possessed by a wolf demon.

When Vernon gets back in town he’s met at the airport by his friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope, PREY), who also lost a kid to wolves. At the morgue, police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale, THE EMPTY MAN) introduces him to Russell – the guy who found his kid, the last person to see his wife, the guy wearing his boots. Awkward. Later, Vernon and Cheeon steal the body and kill the coroner and other cops who are there. Which is not what you’re supposed to do!

Yeah, there’s some kind of supernatural shit going on here, most of it not explained directly, some of it I’m not totally sure I followed, but obviously there are some possessed or cursed individuals, some rituals for disposing of bodies, and what not. And everybody’s trying to find Medora.

For me one of the highlights is in the middle when it explodes into a really top shelf shoot out – one that feels pretty different from any others I can think of. And it has this prelude of deep unease and even in my opinion some very dark, kinda queasy humor. Russell has gone to see Illanaq and found her murdered, and just as he’s leaving in terror the cops are all pulling up outside. Oh shit, now he’s really gonna look suspicious. But they’re not there for that, they’re going next door to try to arrest Cheeon. So they’re too busy to bother asking what he’s doing there, and he clearly wants to tell them about the body he just discovered, but he can’t figure out how to broach the subject right now.

And then there’s this great scene of Marium going to the door and trying to talk Cheeon into turning himself in peacefully. He seems to know there’s no chance he’ll do it, but doesn’t want to give up without making a genuine effort.

The shootout is another BLUE RUIN maneuver, this time rejecting the glamour of gun fights. It’s just one crazy guy with a machine gun pointed out an attic window, firing hundreds and hundreds of rounds into police and police cars just like Vernon when he massacred the shit out of that insurgent in a war zone. He has no pretense of getting away, he’s just exercising what the gun lobby has convinced a portion of our country is a right enshrined in the constitution – to take out as many pigs as possible if the government ever comes for you.

The officers have a pretty good idea when it’s about to happen, but they’re not at all ready for it. They shoot back but they don’t have a chance, it’s too lopsided. Eventually one officer gets in one of the cars and tries to back away, clips the open door on another car, spins out, gets nowhere, gets hit.

Our protagonist, Russell, spends almost the entire thing cowering under a car (like a reasonable person), but eventually picks up a rifle from a dead officer, bravely walks toward the window firing confidently, and if you’ve ever seen a movie before you think he’s gonna be the big hero, show up all the cops by taking Cheeon out easily. I’m afraid not. He fires several shots, I’m not sure if he even hits him before Cheeon runs out of ammo and Marium sneaks into the room.

The total shit show quality of this scene feels very authentic, not because cops are incompetent, but because most never have to deal with this kind of stuff. When Russell asks Marium about it later he tells him the scariest thing he ever saw before that was when he raided a meth lab, and a guy fired four times and missed every shot. “Purse gun. Sounded like bubble wrap,” he says. Great line – seems very novelistic, so I’m guessing it must come from the book by William Giraldi.

I understand why HOLD THE DARK didn’t seem to go over as well as BLUE RUIN or GREEN ROOM. It has similar strengths, and maybe bigger ambitions, but it feels less focused, less direct. It’s more complicated narratively and thematically without coming together in a way that feels very coherent to me. And yet I think it’s pretty good. When it’s a buddy movie with two top shelf character actors furling their brows and matter-of-factly strolling together into snowy hell, that’s something to savor. (I like when Russell just has to trust the chief that he knows how to fly a small plane and land it on a frozen lake. Gulp.) And it has that no-one-is-safe brutality of the previous Saulnier movies. If this is him on a bad day, that’s a strong director. I look forward to his next one, REBEL RIDGE, filmed last summer, with Dale in the cast again.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 22nd, 2023 at 7:07 am and is filed under Reviews, Horror, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Hold the Dark”

  1. I’ve been a Saulnier fan since MURDER PARTY (Proof:

    Murder Party

    Murder Party is the product of some kind of bizarre new offshoot of the straight-to-video indie scene that the internet tastemakers are cal...

    ) but I never got around to this one, mostly because Dan Prestwich said it was too boring for him, and if a movie’s too boring for Dan Prestwich, a man who has sat through and enjoyed movies that would put me in a coma, I figured I should stay far away for the sake of my sanity. Honestly, I thought it was a western, just Jeffrey Wright wandering around the woods by himself looking for a metaphorical wolf, maybe having flashbacks to a dead wife or something. But this sounds more interesting than what I was picturing. I might have to pull the trigger before it gets Zaslaved.

  2. Mr M — I again implore you, don’t do this. Trust me when I tell you that you will literally spontaneously combust if you watch HOLD THE DARK.

    (It might be worth your time to just watch the machine-gun shootout, which really is an absolute banger and will probably make you curious about how a movie with a scene that goes that hard could possibly be as boring as you’ve been told. But again, you gotta trust us on this one, this is for your own good).

  3. It’s a weird shrug of a movie that, yeah, as Vern says, never really coheres or gathers any sort of… narrative momentum, I guess. It’s interesting and has some great scenes but it’s a chore to get through; it reminded me a lot of MUTE, another Netflix bit of #content with Skarsgard that maybe needed some (a lot of!) adult supervision or time in the oven to come into its own. This one’s a lot better, though.
    I loved the Iraq scenes, they are so banally terrifying; I know he was in ZOOLANDER and shit, but Skarsgard really did jump out as a fully formed sociopath with THE WAR ON EVERYONE. Yet another half-baked movie by a director I like.

  4. I realize that I have given the impression that I am never interested in taking in any of the sights en route to the fireworks factory, but I am not completely to the charms of slow, difficult cinema. I own both Panos Cosmatos movies on Blu-ray. I have half a shelf of Herzog. I watched LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD last week, for Christ’s sake, and only fell asleep once. I’m just, like, if you’re gonna go artsy, go fuckin’ FARTSY. Let me know right from the jump that we’re never getting to the fireworks factory. This right here? These tracking shots of hallways and clouds and shit with didjeridoo accompaniment? This IS the fireworks factory. This is what we’re here for. Then I can settle in for the long, languid haul. My problem tends to be when a movie seems to be promising fireworks that never come or makes me wait in the bus for so long that by the time the fireworks go off I’m too bored and surly to enjoy them. So maybe you’re right that this one, which seems to promise shootouts and wolf people but only intermittantly employs them, would only anger me. But I’d like to think Saulnier has built up enough goodwill that I could power through it.

  5. I had the exact opposite reaction to the shootout, where I thought instead of being “this is what would REALLY happen!” it’s… as ridiculous as Arnold Schwarzenegger gunning down hundreds of people in Commando. If anything, more ridiculous, because at least Arnold moves around, he doesn’t just stay in one place with everyone shooting at him but having miraculously bad aim. (In real life, the Angry Video Game Nord would be dead five times over from stray bullets alone.)

    And Commando is, y’know, fun. Has things happen in it for reasons.

  6. Franchise Fred

    May 22nd, 2023 at 3:45 pm

    I also forgot to watch this or the Gareth Evans Netflix movie so thank you for the reminder. Maybe the strike will be catch up time.

  7. I watched this a while ago and liked it; tonally it felt somewhere between THE GREY and ANTLERS, dark and depressing and wintry. I didn’t realize it was from the GREEN ROOM dude; had I known that, I might have gone in with different expectations, but I went in expecting mopey Jeffrey Wright stuck in the snow, and that’s what I got. Until Skarsgård and Black Antelope went fuckin’ nuts. I think I’d like to see Saulnier adapt a Harry Crews novel, maybe A FEAST OF SNAKES. He understands how — not necessarily why, but HOW — men go crazy.

  8. Thought this movie was OKAY but not great and trying overly hard to be grim. Love his other movies though. Had to look up what was the Gareth Evans Netflix movie and that one was pretty good. It’s weird when the hero turns into a fighting expert for exactly three seconds, and I wish the climax had more of that, but still has a lot going for it.

  9. Knowing very well that the mellow and relaxed version from a few days back only enforced my belief that “Mr Majestyk” is a brand name for a whole departement of writers, I will remain professional and treat our friend Vince as one person. And to this “person” I’m afraid I have to say stay away from this movie. I won’t say it made me as pissed off as MIDSUMMER, but what looked promising when the shootout started soon turned into what looked like a plot to make me a full blown alcoholic.

  10. I’ve been a Saulnier fan since MURDER PARTY

    I always thought that perhaps the reason I don’t seem to love Saulnier as much as others is because I started with Murder Party (locally produced, have friends that assisted bringing it into existence) instead of Blue Ruin. So, by the time I saw Blue Ruin, I thought “well, I guess it’s better than Murder Party…”

  11. I really loved this one, but since it’s been 5ive years since I watched it, I don’t know if I’m going to remember all the themes accurately:

    Possible Spoilers…Possible Spoilers…Possible Spoilers….Possible Spoilers… Possible Spoilers… Possible Spoilers…Possible Spoilers…Possible Spoilers

    If I remember correctly it was strongly insinuated that Vern and the Mrs were siblings, and in fact demons or evil spirits wolves etc, it was certainly not a crowd pleaser(haha) like Blue Ruin and Green Room are but I remember feeling like there were similar themes between this and No Country for old men.
    I’m excited Jeremy Saulnier’s got a new project out soon, and Vern et all, if you haven’t seen Macon Blair’s “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore” I would give a big old recommendation to check it out.

  12. I didn’t like this one very much (and the incest, which I’m pretty sure was textual(?) was a part of it) , but it did make crossbows look really gnarly so that was neat. It falls into the movie trap of making Alaska just chock full of compete fucking weirdos who couldn’t possibly interact with normal society which I find very distracting.

    My gut reaction is that it’s better than Murder Party but I’m allergic to art world satire so it’s maybe not a fair comparison

  13. I have recommended this one to fans of the genre as a movie version of US black metal – a wintry soundscape that breaks out into super heavy noise and then kind of recedes into ambiguity. By this overstretched metaphor I actually like it more than Green Room, which didn’t stomp anywhere near enough nazis for a punk movie

  14. This is one of my favorite movies. I felt like it didn’t give up all its secrets on first viewing… I kept thinking about it after I saw it and watched it a couple more times. The wolves eating their cubs – that’s what this couple did of course. And why they did is so interesting to think about. Did Cheeon’s kid get taken by actual wolves or did he do the same thing? Are they holding the dark at bay or are they holding the dark inside themselves, sustained by it?

  15. Just watched HUNTER HUNTER, and it’s an easy recommendation to anyone who liked this. It’s one hell of a film – bleak, tense, deliberate and cruel; To be glib, it’s a cross between Debra Granik and E.C. Comics.

    On a related, less evil-drenched note, I can’t praise LEAVE NO TRACE enough (as long as you don’t mind slow, loosely-plotted indie dramas). Vern- given its themes, I think you’d love it.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>