When you write about film, or are just a fan of film in general, you begin to find certain filmmakers that you sort of claim as your own. Not that you claim a kind of ownership over them, but you feel as if you understand them and their work on a deeper level than others, almost like you’re an expert on their films. Jeremy Saulnier immediately became one of my favorite filmmakers and one that I felt a deep connection with cinematically when I watched his debut Blue Ruin back in 2014. Right then I knew I was watching an exciting filmmaker I needed to continue following. Blue Ruin was my favorite film of 2014, and his follow-up Green Room was my favorite film of 2016. Hold the Dark may not claim the top spot on my rankings of this year, but is by no means a lacking work. Hold the Dark is another violent, tense and poetic work from Saulnier.
Adapted from the novel by William Giraldi (worth reading by the way), Hold the Dark follows Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), an expert and writer on wolves who is hired by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), the mother of a 6-year old boy taken and killed by wolves. She wants him to hunt down the wolves that killed her son. This leads Core down an unexpected and increasingly dark and violent path that coincides with the return of the boy’s father, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), from the war in Iraq.
Jeffrey Wright has never turned in a lacking performance, and brings much needed soul to a cold film. Wright is the kind of actor who can settle into a character’s psyche and communicate it to you without trying too hard or overdoing it. It’s all in the subtleties with Wright. Russell Core is a man who wants to see the reason in the most animalistic, brutal behaviors that others can’t comprehend in wolves, yet he cannot explain the senselessness and brutality of the violence in humans. You feel that tug and pull with Wright in each of his interactions. He’s just weary and tired. Saulnier makes films about characters pulled into violent situations that they are not equipped for, and Wright is an excellent partner in that, he portrays a quiet bewilderment and sorrow at the harshness he’s surrounded by in this wilderness.
James Badge Dale is an actor I always like watching, and gives an understated performance as Donald Marium, the detective assigned to the horrifying aftermaths that Core stumbles into. He too shares a certain incomprehensibility of what’s happening that Core does. Macon Blair (who also wrote the screenplay) – the Michael Shannon to Saulnier’s Jeff Nichols – makes a welcome appearance in a bit role that he elevates. I cannot discuss the performances by Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård without running into possible spoilers, but know they deliver quality work as well. Julian Black Antelope plays in my opinion perhaps the most interesting character from the novel – Cheeon, the friend of Vernon who aids him – and delivers a standout performance, firm and knowing amidst the chaos.
One of Saulnier’s key strengths is pace, he knows when to ramp up the tension and keep you on the edge of your seat. His sense of pace is lacking in some parts of Hold the Dark, certain scenes feel aimless and vague in a way that doesn’t further the film’s identity. There was bound to be some form of regression at a certain point in his filmography, but at the same time he shows impressive growth in other areas. This is the first film of Saulnier’s where you feel like he had a fairly substantial budget, or at least larger than his other films. He’s able to shoot the film largely on location in parts of Alberta, and revels in the footage of the region he’s able to capture. The cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck is quite appealing, doing a lot with natural light to communicate the cold and unforgiving nature of the Alaskan wilderness while contrasting it with its natural beauty and breathtaking scenery.
There are hefty sequences of violence in the film that involve many moving parts, and Saulnier shows he’s capable of these large-scoped sequences. There’s a firefight in the Iraq scenes that’s impressively done in one take. The shootout at the village later in the film is calmly controlled by Saulnier’s steady hand. It’s a chaotic sequence with several characters involved, and you feel how chaotic it is but you never get confused as to what’s happening. It’s edited superbly by Julia Bloch, constantly ramping up the tension. If this is what Saulnier can do with a healthy budget, I can’t wait to see what he can craft with a large budget. I would have loved to have seen this in theaters, Saulnier makes films that deserve to be seen on the big screen with an audience, but it was not playing in one near me. I must give props to Netflix for actually giving this one a theatrical release outside of just a few theaters in LA or NYC. Hopefully this is the start of them giving certain films the proper theatrical treatment.
Saulnier makes a significant deviation from the novel, and I think it works out for the better. There is a large reveal in the novel that puts much of the violence and character decisions in context, and Saulnier chooses to not reveal this. It’s not quite absent from the film, the clues are there if you know where to look, but Saulnier decides to not show the audience this. At first I was confused, and a bit disappointed, but the more I think about it the more I like Saulnier’s choice. It’s more powerful to leave the audience without an explanation for the violence and brutality, it’s better as a mystery and puts us with where the character of Core is at with it – he doesn’t know how to explain it, and neither should we. Part of what makes violence so horrifying is the inability to explain its causation and reason. Violence shouldn’t be reasoned, otherwise it becomes too familiar. Saulnier is one of the only filmmakers able to make films so gratuitously violent yet equally repulsed by its own violence. Saulnier wants to make sure we don’t become too familiar and numbed to violence.