Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Riley Keough, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård
Hold The Dark is the latest feature from a feted indie name to make an unceremonious debut on Netflix. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and Green Room both inspected the violent fallout of masculine bravado, and that same toughness recurs here. The world is full of hardships, blood-letting, rape and death sentences. It’s a cold, cynical and wearily immobile worldview, which here risks descending into self-parody.
Adapted from William Giraldi’s novel by regular collaborator Macon Blair, Hold The Dark sees one-time wolf hunter Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) called back out to the wilderness to help grieving mother Medora Slone (Riley Keough) settle the score with the animal that absconded with her young son Bailey. Medora can offer no payment save for snaps of chocolate, but this is fine by Russell, whose motives for taking the job remain elusive throughout.
Elsewhere, Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) is fighting in Iraq, witnessing casual atrocities and getting nicked in the neck while doing so. Saulnier’s film presents us with two opposing and stark wildernesses, but attempts to connect the two feel mired in moody pretentiousness.
It’s a dim irony that this is Saulnier’s first straight-to-streaming title when the locations the story affords him make it his most traditionally ‘cinematic’ excursion. While it doesn’t quite feature the epic grace of, say, The Revenant, Saulnier makes great use of the Alaskan wilds; as photogenic a setting as you could hope for.
The dialogue between Medora and Russell has a sparse and mythic quality that is likely beautiful on the page, but which in practice reads as hokey and too self-aware (think the second season of True Detective or Cormac McCarthy’s The Counsellor). Their relationship is awkwardly sexualised early on as Medora, naked, joins him on the couch for warmth, quickly skewing a father-daughter bond somewhat unnecessarily. As with the frequent visceral gore and a chronically boring mid-film gun battle, it feels like another attempt to be HBO-edgy without clear justification. It smacks of quasi-nihilistic posturing.
Motives within and without remain frustratingly clouded. Why, for instance, is Russell so openly hostile to the police? New discoveries and Vernon’s return home swerve the film into more traditional crime thriller territory, leaving Russell wandering in a sub-Insomnia swirl of snow and supernatural folklore. Where Blue Ruin and Green Room used their leanness as a weapon to rivet the audience, Hold The Dark feels empty, accentuated by its deathly slow pace, which aims to create mood but, bluntly, fails. By the midway point the self-seriousness conjures memories of The Snowman but without the unintentional laughs to go with it.
So, it’s a misfire, but not a wholly catastrophic one. Its harshest crime is its own redundancy. Like a lot of Netflix Original fare, it’s enough to pass the time, while the sluggishness of the thing will allow those with short attention spans ample opportunity to check their phones or wander in and out getting snacks without particularly missing much, save for bouts of cruel and cold-blooded violence. What is paid attention to will please those enamoured with the weathered brutality found in the work of Tyler Sheridan, but beyond that there’s precious little about Hold The Dark that warrants meaningful investigation. It’s found the home it deserves.