With a Jeremy Saulnier movie there’s always the feeling of hopelessness and existential dread. Saulnier is a man who doesn’t let his characters or his audience off easily, opting for narratives that explore the bleakness of life, and how remorseless human beings can be. With “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” Saulnier kept the audience in a choke hold and didn’t relent until the end credits, and he continues that tradition with “Hold The Dark” a flawed but stellar thriller about the darkness in the human soul and how it easily connects with the darkness of the wild. “Hold the Dark” is about the darkest and bleakest film Saulnier has yet to deliver to fans, because his new cinematic offering relies on slow mounting terror and inherent menace.
Jeffrey Wright plays retired wolf expert Russell Core who is called to the edge of a northern Alaskan village at the behest of young Medora Sloane. After her son is killed by a wild pack of wolves, she hires Russell to track down the pack. But as Russell garners more details about his death, and spends more time around the increasingly disturbed Medora, he makes a hideous discovery. With Medora’s husband Vernon home from serving in the Middle East, he seeks Medora out and embarks on a rampage of violent retribution, all the while Russell tries to make sense of the increasingly chaotic circumstances, and prevent as much bloodshed as possible.
Saulnier gives us a deeper look in to the ugliness of our souls, and how we can submit ourselves to the darkness that lingers in every environment we embed ourselves in. When Russell arrives to the village, he’s stepped in to decades of pain, and secrets, and demons, and can barely fathom what he’s in store for. What ensues is a clear cut path of characters that are enraged and have almost no consideration for the sake of mercy or empathy. Saulnier and writer Macon Blair consistently rely on the themes and overtones of wolves and wolf packs, using the symbolism as a means of defining just about every element of the narrative. When we meet Vernon, he’s pretty much a lone wolf prone to committing to her darker habits, but also hints at glimpses of his own sense of mercy. This rings true during a scene in a Middle Eastern village where he witnesses a young girl being raped in her home.
Saulnier and Blair depict the wilderness as a snowy tundra and wasteland where nature is more of a menacing presence that watches over us threatening to consume us at any time. Russell is a man who’s lost most of his life thanks to his obsession with wildlife, and once he’s found Medora, she’s given herself over to the more primal nature. Once Vernon arrives, he’s also completely relinquished his entire humanity, hunting down Medora, and slaying just about anyone complicit in her escape or descent in to the wild. Saulnier, like past films, simply doesn’t shy away from the carnage that’s inflicted from the sense of pack mentality that ensues, and inflicts blood shed that’s startling and the very antithesis of stylish. Mid-way there’s even a blood soaked stand off in a cabin that will keep viewers grinding their teeth in absolute tension.
The performances all around are stellar, especially from Wright, James Badge Dale, and Alexander Skarsgård, respectively. Folks in to the more simplistic tales of “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” might find the ambiguous storytelling hard to follow, especially as Saulnier keeps a lot of the character details open to interpretation. He also doesn’t offer up the kind of climax I was looking for, considering he throws character Vernon in to a well of blood and death, and it was admittedly a bit anti-climactic. Nevertheless, Jeremy Saulnier’s examination of animal savagery and humanity’s connection to the darker elements of the wilderness is haunting, depicting man’s often inability to perceive the true power it can wield. It’s simply a beautiful if grotesque thriller.
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