“Now you understand about the sky, don’t you?”
Disturbed mother Medora Slone (Riley Keough) says this to writer and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) near the end of Hold the Dark, a grim, enigmatic murder mystery set in the Alaskan wilderness. Were Medora to direct this question to me, I would have to respond with an emphatic NO, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND ABOUT THE SKY. In fact, while I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking it over, I don’t understand much of what this needlessly hyper-violent film is about. Hold the Dark is many things; sensical is not one of them.
The new film from filmmaker Jeremy Sauliner (Blue Ruin, Green Room) has no color in its title–it could have been called The Grey, but there’s already been a (better) wolf-related film with that name. The wolf theme stems from Medora’s plea to Russell to come hunt a wolf that has apparently taken and killed her son, along with two other children in her isolated Alaskan village. But when Russell arrives, all is not what it seems–Medora’s motives for inviting him become increasingly murky as the hunt for the boy leads to startling revelations. Parallel to this development is Melora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a stoic soldier fighting in Iraq (the film is set in 2004). He is shown to be apt at mercilessly killing people, whether Iraqi or American, a trait he carries home with him when he’s sent back due to injury and the news of his son.
Beyond these preliminary details, Hold the Dark‘s narrative and the characters’ decisions make little sense. It seems more interested in creating a mood than genuinely exploring any of the ideas it raises, which range from Native American religion, police brutality, racial tensions, and domestic violence. There are some remarkable shots of the snowy wilderness; Saulnier filmed mainly in Alberta, and the film’s vast, mysterious landscape (and revenge-based narrative) prompts comparison to The Revenant. The darkness of the Alaskan winter is a constant presence, creating a sense of dread and mystery. But when it’s all said and done, Hold the Dark seems more interested in deliberately keeping the audience in the dark than pointing them toward the light. Sometimes a sense of mystery is warranted by a well-crafted story; here, it feels intentionally vague, the plot holes cavernous and the ideas too scattered to create any coherence. Which is disappointing; Saulnier’s previous efforts are lean image- and story-driven thrillers which earn their endings and justify their use of graphic violence. Hold the Dark feels like a mask which, when removed, reveals little underneath.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5057140/