Main cast: Jeffrey Wright (Russell Core), Alexander Skarsgård (Vernon Sloane), James Badge Dale (Donald Marium), Riley Keough (Medora Sloane), Julian Black Antelope (Cheeon), Macon Blair (Shan), Tantoo Cardinal (Illanaq), and Peter McRobbie (Trapper John)
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Welcome to Keelut, Alaska, where the wolves are abound and everyone looks hot despite the blistering cold around them. Yes, this is a movie alright. In fact, Macon Blair’s script does its best to remind me constantly that this is indeed a movie, and I shall never forget this fact. And since Macon Blair is involved in this one, that means… oh, hello there, Jeremy Saulnier. Of course, he and Mr Blair are never far away from one another.
Animal biologist Russell Core, whose specialty is wolf behavior, travels to this village in response to a written letter from Medora Sloane, a reader of his book. Medora tells him that her son, Bailey, was the latest of the children presumably abducted and likely killed by the wolves in the region. Finding no help from anyone, she wrote to him out of desperation, and never let it be said that Russell isn’t good to his readers, because here he is. Only, things quickly get weird when Medora gets naked and climbs into his bed the first night he arrives and spends the night at her place, asking him to choke her. Then things escalate quickly to OMG territory when he discovers the frozen and very dead body of Bailey in the cellar of Medora’s house, and the woman is MIA. Joining the party, better late than never, is Medora’s soldier husband, fresh from a tour of duty in Iraq and now on a mission to kill everyone in his way as he tracks down his missing wife. Hold the Dark? More like what the eff, really.
Somewhere in here is a gripping tale of psychotic people that probably think they are wolfkins to an unhealthy degree, but the script at the same time wants so desperately to be arty-farty like some literary novel made into film that the whole thing resembles two very different movies spliced together. The first half – let’s call it the waiting for Vernon half – is so pretentious that nobody speaks like ordinary people, much less presumably not-that-educated folks in an Alaskan village. No, people launch into monologues that Mr Blair must be hoping to come off as deep. Deeply pretentious, that is, as I get people talking deliberately slowly on stupid things, such as, after Medora showed him where her kid allegedly died, Russell asks her whether she is happy. Her kid just died – what does he think she must be feeling? And then Riley asks him some nonsense about the sky not being right, and I officially enter my “I really am too old to indulge people who have never outgrown their first year film school days!” phase.
Fortunately, Vernon shows up and then people starts speaking normally again – that is, the white characters. The poor native Alaskan characters are stuck in mumbo-jumbo shaman hell, because we all know that’s how all indigenous people speak. At any rate, Vernon starts killing everyone, and I always get a thrill from watching Alexander Skarsgård play crazy. Sorry folks, his clothes stay on this time, as literary arty-farty wannabe movies only have their female lead characters get naked. Still, he is one of those guys that play crazy very well, and ooh indeed. Unfortunately for Jeffrey Wright, he may play the supposed protagonist here, but poor Russell is basically reduced to being an observer here – there is really nothing he can do to change anything about the story; he’s basically a placeholder for the viewer, and that’s a thankless role for any actor, much less Mr Wright.
Throughout it all, the movie is lovely. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck shows that he is worth every cent they are paying him.
By the end of the movie, though, there is hardly a decent payoff. Sure, the lack of a conclusive ending leads to some intriguing questions, and I find myself thinking of several possible theories to explain the messy carnage that happens in this movie. But given how eye-rolling the first half is, I can’t help but to consider this open-ended nature of the movie another exasperating contrivance to shove this movie as deep up its own rear end as possible.
At any rate, watch Hold the Dark for the scenery, because if you are led by the mounting build-up to expect some kind of thrilling denouement, you’re going to end up heartbroken. There are some good concepts and ideas here, but if this one gets inevitably rebooted a few years from now, leave it out of the hands of pretentious twats, please.