Killing for survival, killing for politics and war, killing for revenge, killing for convenience and killing for mercy. There are certain acts of murder that can be, if not understood and accepted, then at the very least determined and a motive uncovered.
We provide euphemisms for acts like these. We sanitise them so that they can be explained without offence. For example, a wolf taking the life of its cubs to ensure the survival of the pack, or a soldier carrying out orders to attack his country’s enemies. We cover them up in less aggressive morphemes so that we don’t have to realise the brutality of what one person consciously choosing to end another living thing’s existence actually means. To accept and to understand it would be a reflection of our own species vulgarity. We all have the potential to be murderers, but we disguise allusions to this as best we can through the language we use. We hide away the thought that if they can do it, then I might also be capable of it.
Cue Jeremy Saulnier, director of Netflix Original movie Hold the Dark, to forcefully inject sometimes senseless, grotesque and remorseless murder directly into your eyeballs for 125 agonising minutes. Meaningless death could strike at any moment. The Green Room and Blue Ruin filmmaker teams with screenwriter Macon Blair (also star of Saulnier’s previous two pieces, as well as director/writer for Netflix Original I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.) to adapt William Giraldi’s murder mystery story.
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A naturalist (Jeffrey Wright) receives a letter from a grieving mother (Riley Keough) who claims her son is the third child in recent months to have been taken by the wolves from their small, relatively isolated Alaskan community. She wants him to find the wolf that killed her son and destroy the creature before her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) returns home from the war in the Middle East. Wright obliges, before a shocking discovery flips everything on its head.
Saulnier does not shy away from showing excessive violence in his movies. Green Room saw hordes of Nazi-punks mutilate their captors with bullets, machetes and Rottweilers during a murder cover up. And herein lies the biggest problem with Hold the Dark: the motive, so integral to connecting the narrative with the viewer. The first and sudden onscreen murder comes as a shock, not least because the point-blank gunshot is so visceral and potent, but because it is unexpected. From there, the tension that has been so prevalent is wound ever tighter. A machine gun scene that puts The Wild Bunch to shame wreaks havoc and it comes when the film is hardly 70 minutes young. Hold the Dark feels every minute of its runtime; and it makes the viewer work to comprehend what is happening all the way through.
Like all of Saulnier’s previous films, the key strength is the atmosphere. It chills to the bone – not just because of Wright’s permanently frosty beard and thick snow boots – by crackling with intensity from the very first scene of young Bailey (Beckam Crawford) burying a toy soldier on a mound of snow in a moment of foreshadowing with the first appearance of the wolf in the background, through to Keough’s naked masquerade, the police chief’s (Michael Tayles) stand-off, Wright’s face-to-face encounter in the wilderness, and just about every single scene that the physically imposing Skarsgård appears in. The performances right the way through the cast are impressive from their first second on screen until their last.
Addressing the 100lbs furry mammal in the room, the ending is going to ensure that Hold the Dark will forever be divisive. Confirmation bias will no doubt lead some to write off the entire movie because the closing scenes are designed to befuddle. Blair’s script leaves whole heaps of content to mull over, but the last few minutes are the most ambiguous of the entire film. Saulnier’s reputation is partly built on the fact his movies do not spoon feed the audience, but this is the first time he’s adapting a screenplay that is not his own, and it certainly feels as though it could have done with just a bit more information.
A film that leaves you wanting to know more is not a bad thing; but a film that leaves you confused about why anybody did any of the things that they did and tries to cryptically explain it all with a vague line that references a hallucination? Some degree of closure would help to heal the gaping wound that Hold the Dark leaves in your mind.
However, that should not cloud what is an otherwise completely absorbing watch. Trying to figure out the story as it unfolds – or as much of it as you can watch through slitted fingers – is testament to how much attention has gone into the construction of a highly complex narrative.