Every year at Fantastic Fest there is at least one selection I make a point to see twice before leaving the city of Austin. A few years ago it was Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden. Three years before that it was Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. Both films would make my personal top ten for their respective years. Saulnier returns this year with Hold the Dark, one of a couple movies playing at the festival that will not have commercial theatrical exhibition, instead going straight to VOD exclusively on Netflix.
Netflix is a beneficial platform in allowing filmmakers to have creative freedom in making the projects they want to make without having to make stringent compromises to appease executives in Gucci, Amarni, Chanel, or Valentino. But a part of me wishes The Big Red N would allow audiences the option to see their original properties on the big screen, if only for a limited period. Those most interested would make the time to see something like Gareth Evans’s Apostle (also playing at the festival), Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and Hold the Dark, another slow burner from Saulnier but a vehicle that allows for him to grow as a filmmaker.
Blue Ruin was a tense revenge thriller to which Saulnier followed with Green Room, a survival story pitting punk rockers against a skinhead bar operated by Sir Patrick Stewart. With Hold the Dark Saulnier expands on his storytelling approach, this time forgoing tautness and mounting dread as the narrative teeters and totters between Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
When wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) receives a letter from a mother bereft after her son was dragged into the woods by a pack of beasts, he travels to the remote Alaskan town of Keelut to investigate. Ashen-faced Medora Slone (Riley Keough) has given up any hope of the body being found; she just wants Russell to kill the wolf that took her boy. Wanting to provide closure is just one of the reasons he decides to do the job. Russell’s estranged daughter teaches at a university in Anchorage.
Keelut is less of a city and more of a makeshift settlement where houses are built within spitting distance from each other. Beguiled by the town as if it were the Alaskan Twin Peaks, Russell becomes less concerned with the task he was hired to do and more concerned with observing how Medora grieves alone as her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgaard), serves in Iraq. She recounts to him that she can never recall a memory in which her husband was not present. They have been inseparable since they were kids and he left her alone with child.
The eerily somber transference of sorrow into action is escalated when Vernon returns home. His arrival shifts the story’s direction as local police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) deals with a series of alarming murders. The people of Keelut are taciturn when it comes to law enforcement already, and Vernon’s arrival exacerbates the relationship. Thus begins the movie’s evolution, switching from an investigation into a disorienting mystery with Russell serving witness to tribal customs and folklore.
Hold the Dark is not likely to be embraced by all who also enjoyed Blue Ruin and Green Room. Those viewing experiences were more immediate. Here the experience is more lyrical, with imagery and score that will rattle your senses harder than standing outside in the cold. The degree to which Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair handle William Giraldi’s novel – providing moving images to match the novel’s idiosyncratic plot – is worth applauding. There’s much to unpack after a first viewing. Writing now I’m still at odds with the conclusion. Its themes of grief, trauma, and estrangement from civil obedience, though, continue to run through my mind.
Nightmarish and beautiful, primal and contemplative, Hold the Dark is not for viewers lacking patience and wanting a simple resolution. Those who do gravitate to Saulnier’s latest will be entranced by its vivid images, both stunning and gruesome, while chewing over its themes and asking questions long after light has turned dark.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!