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?

I’ll give them this: they picked the perfect creepy mask.

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.

Wright sports a near-constant “WTF?” expression.

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.

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

32 Comments

      1. I noticed that the people he killed back home, aside from the ones that were just in the way of him retrieving sons body, were people that knew him in his childhood and presumably knew his secret(s).

        I suppose the body itself was evidence towards that too. This could have all been him covering their tracks so they could more easily disappear, though it seems like there must be more to it when it comes to the body.

        I didn’t see anything to suggest they intended on trying to bring him back to life myself, though I have no idea what the symbols on the coffin were. Could be they just wanted to give him their idea of a proper ritualistic burial instead of getting a modern autopsy and such, but who knows?

      2. Your idea about his killing spree being a case of covering his tracks to make a clean getaway makes sense.

        Evidence for resurrection idea is what he says to Wright “Can you raise my son from the dead” (or something to that effect) and the conversation he later has with his friend lamenting that his family’s bodies won’t be able to go in the ground with his son’s. But, you are right that the only hard evidence on screen is that he is seeking out a special ceremonial burial for his son and will make up his mind once he gets there if the mother gets to be involved.

      3. Yeah I thought that comment about the friends kids body was weird. Well, everything related to that friend was weird.

      4. Oh yeah, and I remember thinking at the time that this was similar to Yellowstone as well, because the friend mentioned how terrible the living conditions were there, and I thought maybe the others had killed their kids just because they couldn’t afford to feed them or something like that, but again, I guess we’ll never actually know.

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