A writer ventures into the Alaskan wilderness after being hired by the mother of a child who is suspected to have been taken by wolves.
The creative team behind the film is among my favorite working today. Ever since Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier has been one of my favorite new directors. I might have to stop thinking of him as a new director now that he has four features to his name. Hold the Dark is the first film of his that he did not write, but the adaptation of the source novel was written by his frequent collaborator Macon Blair, whose own directorial effort I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore proved their styles and way of thinking are very much aligned. The two make a great team and both fully deliver in their respective areas with Hold the Dark. Fans of Saulnier’s previous films will feel right at home in his masterful creation of tension and it is his brutal matter-of-fact portrayal of violence.
Jeffrey Wright pulls off something special with this character. This cast has no weak link, everyone turns in good performances, especially Alexander Skarsgard, Riley Keough, and of course Jeffrey Wright. There’s a scene with Wright’s character where he’s lying in a motel bed, sick, and makes a call to his estranged daughter, and it just makes you feel for him so strongly. You care for him, you want him to succeed, you want him to be safe, and importantly, you want to learn more about him. Wright fully disappears into the character of Russell Core. He feels so real in the way he reacts to situations, to violence, the way he carries himself, the things he says when panicked are all more believable than you’re likely to see from a similar character in a similar situation. This is the type of story where it would be easy for the protagonist to become someone above his means, someone who’s unaccustomed to deadly situations, but suddenly develops action hero traits. The film sidesteps this possibility that other films would exploit and instead keeps the character and the situations he finds himself in thoroughly grounded, in as realistic a way as you could expect with Jeremy Saulnier at the helm.
The centerpiece shootout deserves high praise. Hold the Dark is host to a shootout that lasts for over 20 minutes. This is a set piece that should be lauded and studied. Much like with Blue Ruin and Green Room, Saulnier proves himself to be a master at this particular type of violence. He manages to keep a 20-minute shootout incredibly tense throughout every second, and it never feels like action, it feels like violence. There’s nothing cool or stylish about the gunfight, it’s brutal and it's real. The scene, like many of the best shootouts, progresses through movements. Throughout the course of the shootout, there are new intentions and obstacles established to keep things moving and constantly evolving, there is character development not just for the shooter and the protagonist, but for others involved in the chaos, and I do mean chaos. This shootout can be viewed as a distillation of chaos. Often a cinematic attempt at capturing chaos is executed to be intentionally disorienting, maybe there’s frenetic editing or wild camera work, but Hold the Dark doesn’t manufacture chaos through manipulation of the craft, it stages genuine chaos amongst the characters and allows them to be confused, not the audience. Everything remains clear to the audience, and what is more clear than anything else is that these characters are panicked, they’re scared, they’re under-equipped and undertrained. I also have to praise the film for keeping the bad-guy count so low. It would’ve been easy to give the antagonist a gang, a big group of friends ready to kill or be killed, but instead, Hold the Dark is content with just two people, both well developed, both threatening, and each with their own believable motivations. This set-piece happens near the middle of the film and nothing else ever comes close to it in terms of scope or spectacle. This could leave the film feeling anticlimactic and for some viewers that will surely be the case. It wouldn’t be wrong to feel as though the film concludes with a fizzle rather than a bang, but for me, the ending feels right and leaves you pondering the subtext, meaning, and repercussions of the acts committed in the film.