There is a peculiar fascination in cinema with the human capability to exhibit animalistic qualities. Films that explore this tendency, from “The Revenant” to “Into the Wild” to “The Grey,” speculate that in isolation without the influence of civilization, a certain connection to nature solidifies and the rules of society begin to dissolve. In a similar tone to these films, “Hold the Dark” explores the intersection between humans and nature, though through a much darker and more disturbing lens. While director Jeremy Saulnier’s film has potential, with an intriguing plotline and a strong cast of actors, his reliance on violence and gore is eye-roll-inducing and the ever-present ominous vibe gets old pretty fast.
When reserved, semi-retired wolf-specialist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright, “Westworld”) receives a mysterious letter from Medora Slone (Riley Keough, “Mad Max: Fury Road”) — a woman from a rural, Alaskan town soliciting — help with tracking the wolf that killed her son, he reluctantly accepts. Embarking on a journey into the wilderness, Core begins his search for the killer-wolf. His hunt is halted, however, when he stumbles upon a horrific discovery: the plastic-wrapped corpse of Slone’s son hidden in her basement. Meanwhile, injured in combat in Iraq, Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård, “True Blood”) returns home, greeted by the news of his son’s passing. Overcome by grief, Vernon heads out for Medora’s blood, assassinating cops and civilians who stands in his way. Once an outsider looking-in at the bizarre, evil forces that lurk within the town, Core soon finds himself a hunter once more, now entangled in the police’s quest to bring both Vernon and Medora to justice.
While there are quite a few reasons why Netflix’s latest mystery-adventure flick may not be worth the two-hour watch, there are elements to the film that deserve credit. First and foremost is the strength of Alexander Skarsgård’s acting. With little more than five lines throughout the entirety of the film, Skarsgård still manages to be the most compelling character. Skarsgård’s ability to sink into Vernon’s state of blankness and quiet, unrelenting desire for blood, somehow elicits feelings of empathy from the audience (despite the fact that he probably just mercilessly shot someone in the previous scene). In addition to Skarsgård’s magnetic presence, Saulnier should be praised for not falling into the trap of demonizing wolves. There is a temptation to turn a film about wilderness into one that poses man against animal. Saulnier, however, rejects this, instead positions man against man and demonstrating that the real danger lies not within the jaws of the wild, hungry wolves, but rather within the human capacity for violence and evil.
True to its title, “Hold the Dark” is indeed a film engulfed in both figurative and literal darkness. Set in the thick of the brutally cold and dreary Alaskan winter, much of the film takes place under cloudy gray skies, if not in complete darkness. Adding to this somber mood, the main events of the film, include a mother murdering her own son, a man massacring the village police force with a semi-automatic weapon and a tortured-father on a killing-spree. Halfway through the film, after losing count of how many people Vernon has stabbed or shot, it’s safe to conclude that Saulnier has no reservations over showcasing carnage and no intention of lightening the mood (or the ambient lighting). Saulnier is lost on the fact that gun-violence and murder scenes are not nearly as effective when they happen every other five minutes. Though it is not to say that this is a movie that calls for jokes or witty dialogue, there is a line for how much gore and bloodshed is needed in a scene, and that line is most definitely crossed.
In its essence, this is a film all about hunting. Core hunts the wolf, Vernon hunts Medora and the police hunt Vernon. This creates the sense that characters aren’t really people with emotions and dimensions and compassion because they are rarely shown acting outside of the confines of this one objective to hunt down their respective prey. Though thought-provoking in theory, on screen this constant emphasis on the hunt becomes repetitive and a little too dark and dismal to stomach in one sitting.