Film Review | Hold The Dark

The harsh Alaskan wilderness is the setting for Jeremy Saulnier’s latest slice of satisfying ultra-violence spiced with existential musing

Tracking the ice: Riley Keough and Jeffrey Wright make for unlikely wolf-tracking partners in Jeremy Saulnier’s latest horror-thriller
Tracking the ice: Riley Keough and Jeffrey Wright make for unlikely wolf-tracking partners in Jeremy Saulnier’s latest horror-thriller

It’s a tale as old as time, but we’re not talking about Beauty and the Beast here. Or maybe we are. Jeremy Saulnier’s fourth feature film appears to revel in these primordial dichotomies. Released via Netflix and featuring Jeffrey Wright embroiled in a strange family saga in the Northernmost Alaskan wilderness – specifically, the ludicrously off-the-beaten track, and entirely invented, town of Keelut – Hold the Dark is a tantalisingly violent horror-thriller that exists on the right side of macho and serves up what is likely the best cinematic shootout since Micheal Mann’s ‘Heat’ (1995).

Holding the fort at Keelut while her husband Vernon Sloane (Alexander Sarsgaard) is stationed in Iraq, Medora (Riley Keough) wakes up one morning to discover that her son is gone, likely taken by the wolves that orbit around their wintry cottage for scraps.

In what is a confusing move that the film – based on the novel by William Giraldi – never quite goes about to justifying, Medora does not call upon the authorities to help her look for her son. Instead, she decides to summon the retired naturalist Russel Core (Wright) after perusing a well-thumbed copy of his non-fiction novel, detailing – among other things – how he once tracked down and killed a wolf out of necessity.

Battling with his own demons, Russel soon finds himself out of his depth, and when Vernon returns from duty, events take a terrifying - and baffling - downward spiral.

Saulier works in tandem with frequent collaborator Macon Blair here, who appears as a supporting player years after headlining Saulnier’s breakthrough, partly-crowdfunded feature Blue Ruin (2015), and successfully dipping his toes into filmmaking waters with another high-concept Netflix release, the Elijah Wood-starring I’m Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017). Together, the duo make for something of a vanguard of high-powered American indie filmmaking, coming out with genre releases that eschew the saccharine mainstream while still delivering the thrills – Saulnier’s previous film was The Green Room (2015); a stripped down, set-in-one-location punks-vs-Neo Nazis thrill-fest that couldn’t scream ‘cult’ any harder if it tried (and it does try).

A tendency towards the violent side of things also pervades across his oeuvre, making him feel like a sleeker and more earnest Quentin Tarantino of our times – his predilection towards characters from the fringes to American life bolsters the comparison – and Hold the Dark, with its higher budget and higher concept stakes, is a definite leap forward without being too far a sidestep.

The violence is as drippingly, crunchingly visceral as in Saulnier’s previous features, and given the explicit horror trappings that envelop this one – one part Wicker Man (1973), one part Kill List (2011) – it makes for an appropriately disturbing stylistic blend.

Oh, and did I mention the shootout? Well, I’ll mention it again. Delivered with Biblical rage by Vernon’s Native comrade Cheeon, played with deliciously badass gusto by the soulful but no-nonsense Julian Black Antelope, it does somewhat jar with what is an otherwise moody and elliptical piece about both our unspoken proximity to our natural predilections, and our inability to reconcile with them in an enduring fashion.

But damn it if the blistering set piece isn’t the Sam Peckinpah moment of the Netflix generation. “Worth the price of admission” may not be an apposite term to use when talking about a film ‘freely’ available on a streaming service, but you get my drift.

The verdict

Violent, grisly but with a contemplative and melancholy underbelly, Hold the Dark marks a clear evolutionary step for indie director Jeremy Saulnier, who continues to buck the mainstream trend while still delivering satisfying cinematic chops – on the small screen or otherwise.

Hold the Dark is currently streaming on Netflix