SYNOPSIS: In the grim Alaskan winter, a naturalist hunts for wolves blamed for killing a local boy, but he soon finds himself swept into a chilling mystery.
No matter what you had thought about ‘Hold the Dark’, you’d probably end up surprised, even shocked, by the places that this bleak Alaska-set thriller goes.
On the surface – and what is the movie’s first act – you might be fooled into thinking that it is a man-versus-wolves survivalist thriller. The man in this case is wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who journeys to the isolated Alaskan outpost of Keelut after receiving a letter from lonely military wife Medora Sloane (Riley Keough) that asks for his help in locating her missing boy she believes has been seized by wolves.
There is something off about Medora right from the start: on the first evening that Russell spends at her home, he catches her muttering to herself in the bath, and later on in the night, appears to him wearing only a tribal wooden wolf mask. Notwithstanding, Russell agrees to track the wolves the next day, and after trekking hours in the wilderness, chances upon a bloodied wolf pack gnawing at one of their own in the snow. It’s not that unusual, we later learn, that the wolves would sacrifice one of their younger ones if food is scarce.
But by the time Russell returns to Medora’s home for the evening, you’d already know that the movie is headed in a very different direction. Medora is gone, and in her basement, Russell discovers to his horror her son’s lifeless body. Just as well, an earlier sequence that shows Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) bleeding profusely from the neck after being hit by a stray bullet portends a potential showdown between the two men, as Vernon returns home wounded physically and psychologically, after receiving word on the way back of his son’s death.
Yet this is also not a mano-a-mano between two men caught in the crosshairs of Medora’s inexplicable deeds; oh no, as adapted by director Jeremy Saulnier and his co-writer Macon Blair from William Giraldi’s 2014 novel, the movie becomes a protracted cat-and-mouse chase which sees Vernon pursue Medora with a vengeance, seeking revenge for the death of his beloved son. The cost of that retribution is appalling to say the very least, as Vernon’s Native ally Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) unleashes a bloodbath upon local law enforcement in order to buy Vernon more time to hunt down Medora without interference.
It is violent all right, and those searching for reason why someone would show no compunction towards such senseless acts of violence will find themselves frustrated. Indeed, there are few rational answers to be found in the movie for the savagery that these denizens living on the outskirts of civilisation are disposed to, and within the labyrinthe mystery which unfolds are elements of indigenous folklore, Greek tragedy and rural revenge flicks.
As you may expect, Russell is our surrogate at the centre of all that craziness, dealing with the incomprehensible in a mix of astonishment, curiosity and fear. He becomes allies with the local sheriff Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), both of them unsure whether they are tracking Medora down for the murder of her son, or Vernon before he metes out his own brand of justice upon her, or both. Consider it fair warning that the ending is no neat resolution, so don’t hope for the sort of closure that will leave you feeling easy.
At its core, this is a mood piece through and through, one that hooks you in with his portrayal of the depths of evil that those living on the fringes can be capable of. Saulnier has crafted here a wintry harvest of madness, utterly evocative from its stunning locations to cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s haunting imagery. It is immersive all right, riveting to watch from start to finish, and gripping in its twists and turns that keep you unsettled. Wright and Skarsgard are also top-notch performers, and the former’s picture of vulnerability with the latter’s portrait of muted dysfunction is an intoxicating combination.
Precisely because it doesn’t adhere much to convention, ‘Hold the Dark’ won’t endear itself to the casual viewer; but we must admit that this atmospheric thriller held our attention throughout its two-hour duration. Even though we’re not quite sure at the end of its deeper meaning, or of the coherence of its unorthodox detours, there is definitely ambition, vision and imagination in this dark tale of the beast within. It is a potboiler of the highest regard, and even though there are no ghosts or otherworldly depictions here, there is enough darkness to leave you genuinely spooked.
Review by Gabriel Chong