Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier is behind three of the greatest films of the past five years: Blue Ruin, Green Room and, now, Hold the Dark. They’re all very grim crime stories stained with blood and filled with twisted characters who live by moral codes that lead them down twisted paths. Hold the Dark differs from his previous films in that it’s an adaptation of a novel (the one of the same name by William Garaldi), the screenplay is by longtime collaborator Macon Blair (who’s also acts in all of Saulnier’s features), and the budget is significantly larger (thanks to the deep pockets of Netflix). It’s exciting to see fierce filmmakers make even better movies on bigger budgets, rather than being diluted by the endless input of studio stooges.
There’s certainly nothing watered down in Hold the Dark, which wields its violence in such an effectively shocking way that it recalls the early work of Martin Scorsese. Saulnier similarly deals in violent men with sometimes unusual motives, which is an absolute understatement here. His latest begins in a snowy, remote village in the Alaskan wilderness (the Rockies of Alberta subbed in for the state), where a boy has been taken by wolves. His distraught mother, Medora (Riley Keogh: Mad Max: Fury Road, It Comes at Night, The Runaways), writes a letter to Russell Core (Westworld‘s Jeffrey Wright), an author and expert on wolves, to track down and kill the beasts. To her surprise, he shows up, but gets way, way, waaaaaaaay more than he bargained for after making a shocking discovery in the village.
At about the same time, Medora goes missing, her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), arrives back home from Iraq (a news report tells us the film takes place around the 2004 Second Battle of Fallujah), Vernon’s best friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) joins him in making vengeful plans, the local sheriff, Donald (James Badge Dale) becomes involved, and all manner of murder and mayhem – with a dash of mysticism – ensue in the unforgiving winter wilderness.
Saulnier’s films are fueled by surprises, so to give away much more would be unforgivable. Just know that you’ll see breathtaking scenery (props to cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck), bizarre wolf imagery (the animals embody the overarching theme of the film) and a gunfight that ranks with the greatest in cinematic history.
Despite all this, the characters are the core of Saulnier’s films, and his cast delivers, with the help of Blair’s naturalistic dialog. Wright, Skarsgard, Dale and Antelope are particularly good; all three of them should be starring in more films off the strength of Hold the Dark.
With all these tools and talent at his disposal, Saulnier is able to cradle you gently by the back of the neck while he punches you in the gut – so potent is his style. And that makes it all the more frustrating that the only audiences who will get to see Hold the Dark on the big screen, where it belongs, are audiences at TIFF because the movie is a Netflix original. The streaming giant is a blessing and a curse – on one hand the company allowed the filmmaker to embark on his most ambitious project to date, but on the other hand, this is not a good trend for art intended for the silver screen.
When a film has teeth this sharp, the last thing it needs is a muzzle.