Hold the Dark
2018, NR, 125 min. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Starring Jeffrey Wright, Riley Keough, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, Julian Black Antelope.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Sept. 28, 2018
As Netflix has expanded its creative roster to include filmmakers like Gareth Evans and Jeremy Saulnier, moviegoers have struggled to make their peace with the platform’s release strategy. On one hand, a Netflix partnership means relative creative freedom for some of our favorite directors; on the other hand, it has historically meant that these movies will be denied anything beyond a token qualifying release. But don’t buy a ticket to one of the rare theatrical releases of Saulnier’s Hold the Dark just because you want to teach Netflix a lesson. Instead, buy a ticket because Hold the Dark is an incredibly evocative film and one of the most evocative neo-Westerns of the past decade.
Wolves have long plagued the remote Alaskan village of Keelut, so when local Army wife Medora Slone (Keough) loses her child in a sudden attack, she reaches out to author and wildlife tracker Russell Core (Wright) to bring justice to her family. Russell understands the difficult position he’s been put in; Medora’s husband Vernon (Skarsgård) is headed home following an honorable discharge, and she needs to be able to demonstrate to him that justice has been delivered on his behalf. But when Core discovers that man, not beast, may have killed Medora’s child, he inadvertently kicks off a cycle of violence that will claim the lives of countless Alaskans.
In Hold the Dark, Saulnier and regular collaborator Macon Blair (here adapting William Giraldi's 2014 novel) have created their own variation of the contemporary Western. Most Westerns set in modern-day America try to walk a fine line between the mythological and the modern; they repurpose iconic moments of movies like The Searchers while presenting contemporary America as a rational and scientific setting. Here, the line between man and nature is blurred. There are moments of paranoia that feel lifted directly from classic folk-horror films. Saulnier and Blair use the Alaskan setting to push the boundaries of the genre, electing to mythologize Alaska through the pagan spiritualism of several of the film’s secondary characters.
This imbues Saulnier’s film with an almost timeless quality. Imagine Hold the Dark as a period picture: A rural fort sends for a tracker that has retired to the comforts of civilization, who then runs afoul of an officer that has given himself over to heathen ways. It’s a template that wouldn’t feel out of place in 1800s America, but it is one that feels uncommon – even rare – when presented as part of a contemporary setting. We’re asked to replace horses with Ford Explorers and seaplanes, but the underlying message finds a common thread between classic and modern Westerns: Man is trying to bring civilization to the uncivilized, and this untamed land is more than able to push back against the principles put upon it by those who call themselves the law.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a film from the director of Blue Ruin and Green Room without breathtaking acts of violence, and here he delivers some of his most brutal acts of carnage yet. The film’s most memorable sequence is a prolonged shootout when the big-city cops cross paths with local ways; in it, a local man accustomed to living without police interference decides to wage one last war against the police who show up at his front door. This sequence serves as a grotesque reminder that, for many rural communities, outsiders are a tangible threat against their way of life. Challenging, dreamlike, and unrelentingly bleak, Hold the Dark is a Western – and a Saulnier film – that paints a picture unlike that of any other film.
For an interview with Saulnier and Blair, visit www.austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.