Principal Cast : Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Macon Blair, Julian Black Antelope, Beckham Crawford.
Synopsis: After the deaths of three children suspected to be killed by wolves, writer Russell Core is hired by the parents of a missing six-year-old boy to track down and locate their son in the Alaskan wilderness.
Director Jeremy Saulnier has made a name for himself with cult favourites Blue Ruin and Green Room, and he turns his keen eye to the Alaskan wilderness for this brutal and uncompromising look at isolation, loss and rage, based on William Giraldi’s novel of the same name. Hold The Dark pulls no punches, contains violence and themes of mental illness, desperation and death, and boasts a terrific leading performance by Jeffrey Wright (an actor I’ve always been impressed with, no matter the role): with its snowbound setting and frigid aesthetic the film is an often hypnotic, clutching watch, a sublime depiction of broken humanity amidst animalistic depravity and survivalism.
Naturalist writer Russell Core (Wright – Casino Royale) is sent a letter from Alaskan woman Medora Sloane (Riley Keough – Mad Max: Fury Road) recounting the snatching of her young son Bailey (Beckham Crawford) by a pack of wild wolves, exhorting him to travel to her town and kill the offending creature, even though she assumes her son is dead. Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard – The Legend Of Tarzan) is a soldier fighting in Iraq, although when he is injured is sent home to recover. After discovering the truth behind Bailey’s death, that he was murdered at human hands, Cole is thrust into an uncomfortable situation when the police investigation (Spectral’s James Badge Dale playing Donald Marium, Chief of Police) begins to unravel some sinister secrets of the town’s culture. Vernon, refusing to accept help, takes matters into his own hands and goes on the hunt for his wife himself.
Slow, icy and sometimes impenetrable, Hold The Dark is a terrific character study and a powerful example of storytelling strength. The script by Macon Blair (who also has a supporting role on-screen) is filled with silence and uncomfortable, painful realisations, with moments of brutal violence punctuating the quiet, as the film’s creepy devolution into abject horror and carnage kicks into gear. Skarsgard’s Vernon Sloane, a man living with violence every day, becomes a somewhat sympathetic villain despite outright murdering innocent people, James Badge Dale’s thankless Officer Marium is resolute, while Wright’s Russell Core is our entry point despite becoming lost in the hurly-burly of death and terror of the overall plot. The carefully constructed tension ratchets up with a primal fear, a very human sense of wronged vengeance, with Saulnier’s unflinching camerawork and editorial flourishes maximising the sheer brutalism of the story.
One of the things I was most impressed by with Saulnier’s work here is just how cinematic it is. Although focusing on insular, cloistered characters in an isolated setting, Saulnier gives his film a razor-sharp immediacy, his careful framing and use of the widescreen ratio peeking into the dark and around corners with a Hitchcockian, or Fincher-esque precision. The supernatural flavours the story drops into the mix only add to the spookiness of the setting, revealing elements of the puzzle in clever and stylish ways, with the cinematography (by DOP Magnus Nordenhof Jønk) as crisp and icy as the Alaskan landscape the film takes place in (although it was actually shot in Alberta, Canada). Also impressive is the film’s potent sound design, largely left to fend for itself in a film with minimal (and minimalism) musical accompaniment.
The wind, the crack of gunshots, the growl of wolves in the wilderness, the desolate nature of the human characters against such a backdrop, the crunch of ice and the thud of bullets into bodies; Hold The Dark is a grisly, terrifying canvas of despair and death, and it absolutely will shock you into submission. Fatalistic cruelty often goes unrewarded in cinema, a stark mix of hopelessness and evil, and while the film skirts heading into Wild Bunch territory with bloodthirsty overkill, there’s a real vigour with regards to the film’s statement of grief and loss. Hold The Dark is incredibly tough viewing but worthy of acclaim and greatness; I’d wager casual fans will baulk at its textured plotting and sonorous landscapes but those seeking stimulation beyond the superficial will be well rewarded. Great filmmakers deserve to make great art, Saulnier is well on his way to standing in the footsteps of the Nolans and Finchers of the world, such is his command of the cinema frame. Hold The Dark is effective, powerful cinema and is well worth the journey.
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