Jeremy Saulnier’s “Hold the Dark” incorporates all the grittiest concept cinema knows, but unlike his two previous films, it’s the least impactful and engaging one.
An author of a book on wolves Russell (Jeffrey Wright) is called to a godforsaken town of Keelut in Alaska to investigate the disappearance of a child. Soon, the boy’s body is found. When his mother (Riley Keough) suddenly leaves without a trace, her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) comes back from Afghanistan to seek revenge. Russell, joined by the local sheriff (James Badge Dale) track down the escapee – they need to do it before Vernon does.
Only a few directors kicked their careers off with such a groundbreaking movie as “Blue Ruin”. What started as a Kickstarter campaign, ended in a film winning at the Cannes Film Festival. Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature – “Green Room” – received much applause too and cemented his reputation as a gifted filmmaker.
Both “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” were extremely violent, but that graphic imagery served the story well. Saulnier studied Coen Brothers and Tarantino, but rejected their humorist approach. His cinematic world is dripping with solemnity – there is hardly ever a dim light of hope in there. And even less room for a smile.
“Hold the Dark”, however, crosses the line between powerful darkness and bland, uninspired darkness.
On paper, everything is in the correct order. The cinematography squeezes the juices of the wilderness surrounding, the somber music build the atmosphere, while the cast looks relatively strong.
Despite all of that, “Hold the Dark” is far from nailing its viewer to the chair, because Saulnier’s film is built on rickety fundamentals. Macon Blair – the screenwriter who worked with Saulnier on “Green Room” and “Blue Ruin” – seems to be unsure as to where’s the story galloping to. The characters are flat and their behavior is often irrational. In one of the scenes (which lasts for at least 10 minutes), an Indian friend of Vernon engages in a massive police shootout, which follows a “skirmishy” conversation with the sheriff. His motif is hardly understandable, which turns the whole scene into a poorer version of “Heat”.
The cast has also left a lot to be desired. While Jeffrey Wright was convincing as a drab, a bit detached writer dragged into someone’s fright, the main “nope” goes to Alexander Skarsgard. Following his atrociously bad “Mute“, Skarsgard has collaborated with Netflix again. As Vernon, his carved-in-rock face remains unshaken. Even when seeing his deceased son, Skarsgard’s channels little to none of the internal pain his character feels.
When watching “Hold the Dark”, I also couldn’t avoid thinking of “Wind River” – a directorial debut by Taylor Sheridan from only last year. Both films share a lot. Sheridan’s film is also set in the desolate mountains, with a crime & investigation as the main topic. But unlike Saulnier, Sheridan found a deeper meaning in the story set in a reservation area. When “Hold the Dark” touches on the topic of the hard situation of Indians, it’s like an essay written by a kid in middle school – it’s neither in-depth, nor quite observational on the social level. It’s written just to get passed.
“Hold the Dark” will appeal to the fans of gritty stories stained with fair amount of blood. It echoes the similar tunes to the previous works of Jeremy Saulnier. However, it remains a solid if flawed thriller only. Given how magnificent “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” were, “Hold the Dark” is somehow left in the lurch.
Hold the Dark (2018)
Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Hate Grade: 5/10