The Netflix original “Hold the Dark” is a deeply atmospheric film that won’t hold casual viewers’ attention for more than 15 minutes.
The film stars the puzzled-looking Jeffrey Wright as Russell Core, a writer and wolf aficionado contacted by a monotonal woman named Medora Sloane, played by Riley Keough, to find her missing son in an isolated village deep in the Alaskan mountains. Medora, deeply disturbed, thinks wolves abducted her son. Core, discombobulated by the Alaskan day-night cycle, goes about trying to find her son, but soon gets in way over his head. Meanwhile, Medora’s husband Vernon, played by Alexander Skarsgård, returns from military service in Iraq, but he has dark secrets and motivations of his own brought to forefront through his son’s disappearance.
What follows is a bizarre, often shockingly violent noir tale. I pay attention to movies while I watch them — I have to write these reviews after all — but “Hold the Dark” left me utterly confused by the time the credits rolled.
Director Jeremy Saulnier and writer Macon Blair, who previously collaborated on the bloodsoaked films “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” devised a plot way too convoluted for its own good, making the so-called “revelations,” or lack thereof, feel disappointing, hollow, and undeserving of the haunting atmosphere, soundtrack and spellbinding cinematography that framed them.
Saulnier favors ambiguity over clear-cut answers, but the kind of ambiguity that infuriates rather than entertains. Cryptic dialogue, poorly linked side-plots and a head-scratching ending left me feeling cheated. Upon doing online research after the viewing, I still didn’t understand. What’s the point in making this story so complicated?
Even so, Saulnier has clumsily built in intriguing themes –– including the psychological effects of isolation, sacrifice, revenge, redemption and the inner wolf brewing within us all –– that are admirable in their ambitious scope. It’s a real shame these existential themes aren’t served by more developed characters or storytelling.
The lack of emotionally rich characters can also be attributed to the script and acting. The bulk of the dialogue favors mumbled, abrupt phrases and supposedly dramatic pauses that only serve to draw out certain scenes far longer than they should have been.
While I’m a fan of Wright’s acting in “Westworld” on HBO, his character here –– along with all the other characters –– is so emotionally stunted he appears more like a malfunctioning robot than an actual relatable human being. Core moves as slow as a glacier and speaks in frustrated grumbles, perhaps illustrating Wright’s disinterest in the character. Skarsgård seems to channel his horrendous performance from “Mute” earlier this year, but he’s at least a bit more compelling this time around. This could all be intentional with the movie’s frigidly effective atmosphere, but it isn’t necessary to make the characters speak in a way that implies their bodies are literally 90 percent frozen.
Where “Hold the Dark” fails in story and character, it excels in building foreboding, malevolent dread that flows out of the screen into viewers’ psyches. Saulnier photographs the isolating mountain range as an overwhelming presence, often brilliantly making the characters appear as insignificant specks in comparison to the untamed wilderness behind them. Many shots reminded me of the films “The Revenant” and “Wind River” in their awe-inspiring compositions.
The sound design is also great, emphasizing tactile sounds, such as a fireplace crackling or a boot sinking in snow, that make viewers feel physically connected with the characters.
There are also certain scenes of practically unbearable suspense –– a staredown between Core and an alpha wolf immediately comes to mind –– that would satisfy most viewers. They just have to slog through the gunk to get there.
The violence is also nauseating, frankly, and feels tangible and grounded in reality. One specific shootout in particular stands out through Saulnier’s unflinching depiction of death and killing. I had a similar reaction to Saulnier’s previous film “Green Room,” which featured violence that made me sick to my stomach.
“Hold the Dark” is a difficult film to review. On one hand, the cryptic plot severely hinders the film’s intellectual themes and will leave most viewers in confusion-induced rage. On the other hand, for cinephiles who can nevertheless appreciate the film’s menacing style, “Hold the Dark” might be worth a watch. If, however, viewers have a choice between this and “Wind River,” definitely watch the latter instead.