Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, James Badge Dale, Julian Black Antelope, Tantoo Cardinal, Beckham Crawford
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Jeffery Wright, the consummate character actor who often improves scenes merely by showing up, is given a rare central role in writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller, Hold the Dark. Wright has a knack for both outlandishness and subtlety; imbuing his characters with off-kilter tics, or in the case of his infamous role in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, a sense of tenderness. As Russell Core, a wolf tracker/author, Wright brings a quiet soulfulness to a character which on paper exists mostly as a cipher. It’s a pity then, that the film itself fails him, since Sauliner’s take on William Giraldi’s novel of the same name (adapted by friend and co-actor Macon Blair), is mostly a laughable dirge into the abyss. Brutal violence in the Alaskan wilderness has never felt this pointless since last year’s Wind River.
Sauliner’s gifts up until this point have been in maintaining a mood of intense dread punctuated by moments of shocking violence. Both Blue Ruin and Green Room showed how humans pushed to their breaking points (psychologically and physically) could be capable of heinous acts. These films used gore not to titillate the audience (ala the work of Quentin Tarantino), but rather, to reveal the messiness of how real violence often manifests itself. Truthfully, there are stretches during Hold the Dark; particularly a tense extended police shootout, where Sauliner achieves this sublime fusion, but such moments are fleeting. On the whole, the director’s penchant for obvious metaphors and blunt formalism makes Hold the Dark silly in its brooding self-seriousness. Once the thematic goal is laid bare (spoiler alert: wolves are just a metaphor for the savage evil of humanity!), Sauliner’s film falls apart under the weight of its own ridiculousness.
Without moments of levity, humanity, or even comprehensible behavior, it’s difficult to engender much empathy for the kind of soulless archetypes trotted out here. The initial narrative involves children going missing from a small Alaskan town. Wright’s echo-friendly tracker is brought in by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), to hunt the wolf which apparently killed her son. Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), is fighting in the war in the Middle East, introduced by stoically gunning down a bunch of foreigners before brutally stabbing one of his own. Medora speaks in hushed whispers, wears a weird mask at one point, and stumbles around naked. Vernon, meanwhile, is sent back home after being injured and almost instantly goes on a sociopathic killing spree. Of course, the entire wolf tracking episode is a red herring, with the narrative shifting into a ham-fisted treatise on America’s bloodlust for violence.
Medora and Vernon are such blank slates that whenever the focus moves away from Core (which is more often than expected), Hold the Dark feels like bland miserablism for its own sake. As things near the predictably bleak and bloody conclusion, Sauliner mistakes his rather straightforward genre exercise for something more profound. Had he played into the material’s ludicrousness (complete with Inuit curses, slasher masks straight out of The Strangers, and arrow attacks), then Hold the Dark could have been a clever midnight movie riff. Instead, Sauliner wants to make big statements about humanity, which is too bad. A world-weary Jeffery Wright hunting down mystical wolves could have been much more meaningful.