Hold the Dark is a Netflix Original from Jeremy Saulnier, and just speaking for myself they had me at “From the Director of Green Room.” What I forgot in the glee to see the next film from a promising young director is Netflix’s troubling history of recruiting directors, like Saulnier, Eli Craig, and Adam Wingard, from the ranks of indie horror/suspense and then shepherding them into making the most disappointing films of their careers. Hold the Dark now joins Little Evil and Death Note in the list of grand Netflix disappointments.
Hold the Dark is a slow-burn, snow noir about a retired naturalist (Jeffrey Wright) being summoned to a small Alaskan village by a mysterious woman (Riley Keough) who claims her son has been abducted by wolves. The terrible truth of the matter, however, quickly reveals itself, and the naturalist finds himself reluctantly caught in the middle of a police investigation. At the same time, the missing boy’s father (Alexander Skarsgard), newly returned from the war in Iraq, goes on a sudden, inexplicable killing spree like a Nordic, masked Terminator. Is he even completely human, we’re left to ponder? And what’s all this about him trying to possibly resurrect his son from the dead?
It’s a film that wants to be a cop drama and folktale horror show at the same time. It ends up baring more than a passing resemblance to Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western Wind River, in which Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen traverse the snow-packed mountains and small towns/reservations of Wyoming in search of a missing Native American girl. There are similar notes of Native peoples lamenting the corruption of their traditions and families, and the centerpiece is clearly a remarkably tense, uber-violent standoff between ill-prepared cops and a surprisingly well-armed militia type. Wind River did all of that better, but Hold the Dark can stage a violent stand-off with the best of them.
That’s hardly surprising since it’s from the same director responsible for 2016’s excellent Green Room, a film about neo-nazis trapping a punk band in the back room of a small club and attempting to kill them since they saw too much. Green Room benefited from what is ultimately a rather streamlined story: people trapped in a room have to get out, and not all of them do. Hold the Dark, which I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore’s Macon Blair adapted from a William Giraldi novel, is far more ambitious and sprawling with its narrative.
There’s the quasi-Wind River portion of the film in which Wright and the local sheriff played by James Badge Dale attempt to connect the dots. But, there’s also the more horror-inclined half featuring a laconic Alexander Skarsgard dispassionately murdering everyone in his path, including those who are actually helpful to him, such as a local shaman and former war buddy who helps stitch him up. These two halves eventually intersect, but not until after the uber-violent standoff with one of Skasrgard’s few allies. That happens roughly halfway through the film, and Saulnier’s failure to ever regain story momentum after that is glaring.
Really, you spend most of the time just as confused as Wright’s character. It’s all so purposefully ambiguous and seems to be aiming for some kind of reflection on extreme isolation turning humans feral and various half-realized commentaries on parenting. Almost all of men in the story, for example, have kids, are about to have them, or are mourning the loss of their children. The final scenes are certainly devoted to reuniting families, but the ending also offers precious little explanation for any of the film’s mysteries.
Hold the Dark, thus, is far more of a mood piece than a traditionally satisfying narrative. Handed a clearly bigger budget and a more recognizable cast, Saulnier seems to have fallen in love with the oppressive bleakness of the endless Alaskan nights, inescapable snow and maddeningly vague allusions to the creeping ferality of the human condition. If that kind of thing does it for you, then have it. However, much like the film’s characters constantly enduring Alaska’s punishing arctic temperatures, the whole thing left me feeling rather cold.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hold the Dark asks far more of its audience than Jeremy Saulnier’s prior film, Green Room, but I don’t know if the more challenging approach achieves truly worthwhile results. You spend most of the time not knowing why any of it is happening, there are two different kinds of films happening simultantouesly, and the mid-movie outburst of extreme violence leaves the second half of the story feeling directionless.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
If you’ve already watched Hold the Dark and just want someone to explain the ending, check out this ScreenRant article.