As brutal and unyielding as the violence is in Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed movies Blue Ruin and Green Room, it’s generally contained and matter-of-fact, the product of flawed decisions by realistically flawed people. Saulnier’s new film, the Netflix original Hold the Dark, is just as violent as his previous work, but its tone is more grandiose and ethereal, with characters committing violent acts for reasons that are often unclear. The inscrutability of the characters and the slow, sometimes plodding pace make Dark tougher to get into than Saulnier’s more straightforward, propulsive thrillers, but it still has plenty of its own rewards.
Based on a novel by William Giraldi and scripted by frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair (who wrote and directed his own Netflix original thriller, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, last year), Dark is set in a remote Alaska village, where hungry wolves have dragged off two small children during the cold winter months. When Medora Slone’s young son Bailey disappears, she too blames the wolves, and she contacts nature writer and renowned wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) to help her track the animal that killed her child.
Surprisingly, Russell responds to this plea from a total stranger, in part because he hopes to reconnect with his estranged daughter, who is working as a teacher in Anchorage, and in part because he’s clearly lost and looking for something meaningful in his life. What he finds when he arrives is something much more sinister than ravenous wolves, though, and his animal expertise quickly becomes irrelevant (or is at least channeled into a different kind of hunt). Medora (Riley Keough) disappears not long after Russell first meets with her, and when her menacing husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) comes home from his military deployment in Iraq, he has a lot of anger issues to work out over his family situation.
As the violence escalates, Russell sticks around for reasons that are not entirely clear, tagging along with an upstanding local cop (James Badge Dale) who’s trying to sort out the increasingly tangled (and bloody) mess. Vernon’s and Medora’s motivations are even murkier, and the movie’s final act gets lost in metaphysical meanderings that illuminate very little about what’s actually going on. Even so, Saulnier remains a master of visceral violence, and there are numerous intense, engrossing scenes depicting horrific acts, including a masterful mid-film shoot-out that’s probably the most ambitious set piece that Saulnier has ever staged.
And even when the characters’ actions are hard to understand, the movie is consistently suffused with eerie atmosphere, thanks to the stark (and gorgeously shot) locations, the sparse but sometimes quasi-mystical dialogue, and the strong performances, especially Wright as the haunted but determined Russell and Dale as the good-hearted cop who has no time for local superstitions. Saulnier and Blair leave more questions than answers by the time the movie ends, and that ambiguity can be more frustrating than intriguing. It’s also a reflection of Russell’s position in the story, as an outsider who stumbles into this strange, unforgiving world and does his best to make sense of it without succumbing to its deadly darkness.