Director Jeremy Saulnier returns with his fourth feature, Hold the Dark. The film is his first, not only without an original screenplay, but a screenplay written by him. Instead, it’s an adaption, written by his producer Macon Blair.
Hold the Dark is initially a revenge plot. A wolf tracker, Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is written to by a “grieving” mother, Medora Sloane (Riley Keough), whose 6-year old son’s been murdered by wolves. However, all is not as it seems in this secluded and rural Alaskan town. Core makes a few astonishing discoveries, while Mrs. Sloane also vanishes. The film soon becomes, not only a hunt for her, but a psychological and supernatural thriller.
The mood of Saulnier’s latest piece is akin to Heart of Darkness. The enemies aren’t the people, but how the desolate surroundings of their environment affect these people. At the center of this darkness, much like Marlowe, is an outsider: Mr. Core. Jeffrey Wright plays this weary, sullen, and saddened character, encapsulating his overall solitude. Opposite him is Vernon Sloane (Alexander Skarsgård), an Iraqi soldier returning home to find the news of his deceased son.
Both men are quiet. In fact, if you assembled their dialogue, you probably wouldn’t get past five pages. Their temperaments are uniquely opposite: Wright projects a passive kindness, while Skarsgård is a mass of pent up rage. While one has seen enough darkness in the wilderness to last a lifetime, the other embraces it. But it’s their reactions toward violence that most separates these two men. Core is called to the town because he once killed a mother wolf, an act that he admits to Mrs. Sloane did not feel easy. Meanwhile, Vernon’s default is gratuitous violence. Core sees violence, even toward animals, as a last resort.
Their motivations are never quite clear in the film, and even less so for Vernon’s best friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope). No one more summarizes the mysteries at the center of this darkness than Cheeon, another man of few words. Julian Black Antelope’s performance seethes with undercurrents of contempt and vindictiveness. In short, he’s amazing.
Saulnier’s lens has also become more defined and his pursuit of the shot intenser. Many of the sets for this small Alaskan town, Emery, were built on location. The filming by all accounts was difficult, as the production team had to contend with the brutal Alaskan weather, but the result of production designer Ryan Warren Smith and the crew’s diligent work is stunning. Saulnier’s pursuit of the shot gives the film not just an authenticity, but encapsulates the mood of the adapted screenplay, a screenplay adapted by Macon Blair from William Giraldi‘s novel. Saulnier also isn’t afraid of a ‘little’ blood. The film, at points, is nearly bathed in it as we’re confronted with a rape scene and a shootout.
While the psychological aspects of the film, flourish, the supernatural aspects rarely appear to be above window dressing. That’s possibly because the film’s intent is to study this small town’s isolation, and what said isolation has wrought, but it still appears more than lacking. The background of the supernatural aspects of the film, which oscillates between voodoo and a belief usually found in isolationist areas, requires refinement as it sometimes borders on the cliche. Still, Saulnier’s brutal thriller never expects us to understand, just to observe. And in this small town of Emery, observing is just fine.