After two intimately-scaled, white-knuckled Americana thrillers (Blue Ruin and Green Room), director Jeremy Saulnier decides to stretch his abilities as a storyteller by unwinding his tightly threaded grotesqueries, opting instead for a sprawling and, comparatively, languorous Hold the Dark. Made for Netflix, this is an awfully big movie for a small screen; a shame it isn’t playing in more theaters, since one of its chief pleasures is how it lenses its monolithic environments that are equal parts oppressive and stunningly beautiful. However, with this thriller—if it can even be called such—Saulnier may have bitten off more than he can chew, as its largely symbolic narrative unspools beyond his capacity to contain it.
Set in and around a remote Alaskan village, what begins with Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a wolf expert and author, being tasked by a mother (Riley Keough, in a criminally wasted role) to find and kill the wolf responsible with taking her child, quickly turns into a more sinister sort of mystery. If this recalls Wind River, last years similarly snowbound examination of animal savagery in the soul of human, you’re not the only one. If anything, Hold the Dark pushes the symbolism of the wolf residing within humanity well past its breaking point, to the point where this trope becomes cliché. After a mostly promising first act, it becomes clear that the story has no interest in following through with a story grounded by anything other than its lugubriously delivered symbology. Dialogue ceases to be dialogue and characters cease to be characters; everything is an obvious cipher for this film’s particularly blunt assessment of the human condition. This is a movie that’s more interested in womb-like grottoes (where two characters actually go to conceive) and wolf masks than giving its talented actors anything interesting to work with.
Saulnier’s penchant for shocking violence and large body counts remains, but the violence all feels entirely disproportionate to what the story demands, and as such it fails to thrill so much as confound. Violence is often a blunt instrument in storytelling, and Saulnier opts for a machine gun when a scalpel would suffice. It’s well-directed bloodshed, to be sure. A mid-movie set-piece involving a police standoff is impressively bombastic, but the body count begins to feel ludicrous against the hushed poetry of its portentous dialogue.
Eventually the movie becomes almost like a slasher film, and its attempt to draw parallels between Russell, the horror movie killings he encounters, and how it all relates to our human spirit becomes too much to bear, particularly when it’s all hinged on some particularly silly revelations. Although even “revelations” feels too strong a word, as this film only ever obliquely hints at anything, offering frustrating omens, jarring flashbacks in their place, and those ever ubiquitous symbols in their place. Maybe it would be more compelling to me to sift through all the puzzles pieces if they weren’t all so thoroughly drenched in gore. Although among all the viscera and void of answers, what I have found of the film’s seemingly mysterious outlook on the human condition is disappointingly limited.
Hold the Dark is too much Freud and too much Friday the 13th to be taken entirely seriously, like it so very much would like to be. Perhaps Saulnier wanted to escape the realm of the contained genre piece of his prior work and make Serious Art while still playing to his exploitation sensibilities, but he fails to commit to either one.
It’s too juvenile and clumsy to be the introspective dark night of the soul it wants to be, and too untethered from narrative motivation to thrill.
While Saulnier’s command of primal imagery has further improved with this picture, it’s hitched to a narrative that put the cart before the horse. Most stories start with the basics and build outward, finding their true meaning from exploring interactions between all their moving pieces, themes emerging forth from actions grounded in character. But Hold the Dark feels like it was constructed in reverse; this movie is a theme in search of a story.