Film Review: Hold the Dark

This dark, pitiless story about a psychotic veteran’s bloody tear through remote Alaska wields haunting grandeur along with reductive plotting.
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Jeffrey Wright never shows up to deliver good news. The bass voice, downward-cast eyes, lethargic fatalism; none of it says happy days are here again. Scholars will have a devil of a time determining when he was last spotted cracking an actual smile, and not that half-grin which seems to contain within it all the wry fatalism of a monastery’s worth of Zen monks. It would be nice if someday soon he gets to show up in a Judd Apatow movie. Suffice it to say that when Wright appears at a woman’s doorstep in Jeremy Saulnier’s gruesomely bleak Hold the Dark, it’s not to deliver a check from Publishers Clearing House. The woman, Medora (Riley Keough), wrote to Dr. Core, the wolf-specializing naturalist being played by Wright, because “three days ago, my son was taken by wolves.” Two other children in her remote Alaskan village recently died the same way, she said. What does she want from Core? Track and kill the wolf.

Just as it’s never quite made clear why Core flies to Medora’s hamlet on a moment’s notice, or why Medora seems to have cracked, little is done to flesh out the story’s other prime mover. That would be Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), who is serving in Iraq when their son disappears and Medora soon after him. A lean and spooky presence, he seems to exist in his own universe of moral reckoning and steely psychosis. Happening across a fellow soldier raping an Iraqi woman, he stabs the man and wordlessly hands the befuddled woman his blood-dripping knife to finish the job. After taking a round to the neck, and getting word of his son, Vernon heads home, ready to unleash a different though more opaque kind of fury.

Once back in Alaska, Vernon pairs up with his running buddy Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope). Vernon’s motivator seems to be discovering what truly happened to his son and whether Medora was involved. But he and Cheeon soon show that they have a broader if less defined mission in mind. The killing spree that follows is as nerve-rattling as it is baffling. Meanwhile, Core lurks in melancholic gloom on the periphery, almost as much an observer as the audience.

There are some hints of a Taylor Sheridan movie like Wind River, where taciturn gun-slinging Americans on the empire’s ragged borderlands mete out Biblical justice beyond the scope of tut-tutting civilization. But the story’s chilly distance from its characters and saggy, motivation-less third act make the nods to folklore and eternal verities about man and animals seem less relevant as the movie settles into its final slog.

Director Jeremy Saulnier has shown with movies like Blue Ruin that he knows how to keep viewers’ attention rapt through a spiraling series of unlikely events that eventually explode in pulverizing violence. With Hold the Dark, adapted from William Giraldi’s fabulistic and ghostly novel by Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair, Saulnier tries a moodier approach, one garlanded with mythological overtones and a potent appreciation of the setting’s almost frightening beauty.

Not that he has much choice. Giraldi’s book was both starkly detailed on the particulars and fuzzy on motivations. It felt like something born equally of James Dickey’s Hobbesian take on man and nature and post-Vietnam tales of wounded warriors unable to adjust to civilization. It’s possible that the men and women here are killing for a reason. Maybe it’s because of what Cheeon tells the officer, played by the steadfastly earnest James Badge Dale, about how abandoned the villagers have felt, that nobody cared about what happened to some Indians in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s like Medora tells Core about “how black it gets” in their remote corner of nowhere, how that blackness “gets in you.” But it’s equally possible, by the time of the machine-gun massacre that erupts at the movie’s halfway point, that some men are just killers.

To be fair, that’s probably a question to be handled by larger authorities than Netflix.