Fantastic Fest 2018: HOLD THE DARK Because It’s Just Outside the Windows and It’s Coming For You

Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair continue to be a filmmaking duo par excellence

Directed with the calm assurance of a master, Jeremy Saulnier is only gifting us with his fourth film and appears to be running laps around most other practitioners of his craft. His frequent co-creator Macon Blair also rises to a new level with his adaptation of William Giraldi’s novel of the same name. To be clear, I haven’t read that novel, but the screenplay for Hold The Dark is fantastic regardless. A bit of a slow burn mystery/thriller, the film explores the life and religion of Alaskan people at the very edges of civilization. What’s beyond does not appear to be a friendly or inviting place.

Jeffrey Wright’s Russell Core is a wolf expert and a lonely man, distant from his adult daughter and separated from his wife. Alaskan mother Medora Slone (Riley Keough continuing a hot streak) writes to Core, asking him to come, hunt, and kill the wolf who snatched her son and took him into the wilderness. Soon Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard in a terrifying performance) returns home from the war to news of his son’s passing, and, after the grisly discovery of young Bailey Slone’s body, lawman Donald Marium (James Badge Dale having a banner year) comes in to handle the case. Wolves have set off a chain of events that are more or less apocalyptic to the small town, and things aren’t going to end well for anyone involved.

Alternately gorgeous and foreboding, Saulnier deftly doles out breadcrumbs for a tense and dark mystery while also exploring the unfamiliar religious practices of the Alaskan natives, the peculiarities of the people who live on the fringes, and the ultimate nature of true wilderness. Hold The Dark shares much in the way of visuals, setting, and genre with last year’s Wind River. But Saulnier’s film deals much more explicitly in the supernatural, with characters’ deeply held and mysterious beliefs driving much of the mystery forward.

It’s definitely going to be a movie that rewards rewatches. Saulnier and Blair aren’t giving up the answers to the mystery with a bunch of exposition dumps or Oscar speeches from our characters. There’s a subtlety that makes the mystery even deeper and leaves some viewers uncertain as to what they’ve seen or what it means. This yielded great post-screening discussion and debate, and brought me some alternative theories to meditate on. This type of thing could frustrate many viewers, or leave them feeling disconnected from the material. There are different ways one could read the ending, for instance. Or different understandings of the motivations of the Slones, especially.

Hold The Dark offers a kind of existential dread that permeates the tragic story and even cuts into the gorgeous landscapes. We’re asked to question if the unknown is, at its core, chaos? There are explorations of generational trauma, and just how much damage we do to our children in the process of raising them in an unforgiving world. Keogh and Skarsgard as grieving parents provide the greatest mystery of the whole film. Who are these blonde white people living in an otherwise Native village? In perhaps the most unsettling early sequence, a clearly traumatized Medora enters Core’s room wearing nothing but a wolf mask in the middle of the night. The score and the situation made me so tense it was almost unbearable. Medora says and does things we don’t understand, and soon the same becomes true of Vernon. Wright’s character is perhaps the most relatable, as a bit of a cypher for us into an unknown world. And yet, his isolation from his family and regret over a life unlike what he’d wanted perhaps allow him to fit right in amidst this chaotic investigation.

What I simply can’t get over is the direction on display. There’s aerial work, massive shootout set pieces, wolves, and a knockout cast all captured with a master’s hand (credit where it’s due: Magnus Nordenhof Jønck served as cinematographer). So much of Hold The Dark is elevated by Saulnier’s brilliance. Small moments that we’ve seen a thousand times before, like a man being shot unexpectedly, are captured in such a way as to feel fresh and new and unlike what we’re used to seeing. That the film is coming to Netflix is somewhat of a disappointment as it deserves the big screen treatment. But they also financed it, so perhaps it wouldn’t exist at all without them? I also sincerely hope to be able to own it on Blu-ray someday, but that’s neither here nor there.

Hold The Dark posits a number of questions, and withholds some of the answers. Or, at best, simply offers some hints and asks you to do the legwork of connecting the dots. It asks of its audience, and in turn it will reward with repeat viewings and spirited conversations among friends. It may not be as commercial or straightforward as either Green Room or Blue Ruin, respectively, but it represents a next level of filmmaking for Saulnier and Blair. From pulse pounding thrills to existential nightmares, Hold The Dark delivers something masterful and nuanced that will keep you guessing long after the end credits roll (or after the dark takes you, whichever comes first).

And I’m Out.

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