WOLF IN CREEP'S CLOTHING
Hold the Dark (15)
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Screenplay: Macon Blair
Review: David Stephens
Filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier has quietly built himself up as one of the most dependable names in the industry over the past few years. He’s a genuine jack-of-all-trades, having a background that encompasses pretty much everything from make-up and casting to writing and directing. His directorial debut was the fun horror/comedy “Murder Party”, which was released in 2007. After that he wrote and directed two superlative borderline genre movies; the offbeat revenge drama “Blue Ruin”, and the wonderfully vicious siege thriller “Green Room”. His new film is a Netflix original film and based on William Giraldi's 2014 novel “Hold the Dark”. His long-time muse, childhood friend, and frequent lead actor Macon Blair, wrote the screenplay for the movie and unsurprisingly makes an appearance as well. The production boasts a rock-solid cast, including the likes of Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld”, “The Hunger Games”), Alexander Skarsgård (“True Blood”, “Mute”), and Riley Keough (“It Comes at Night”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”). After being previewed at TIFF and Fantastic Fest, the film is now streaming on most regions of Netflix from September 28th onwards. So YGROY takes on walk on the wild side (with a nice warm jacket and some toasty gloves) and checks out this latest offering from the director.
We’re deep in the Alaskan wilderness, in the ramshackle township of Keelut. A small boy is playing in the snow with some toy soldiers, and looks up to see a lone wolf staring at him. When his mother (a whispery Keough as Medora Slone) rises from slumber, he’s no longer there. Medora subsequently sends a message to tracker and author Russell Core (Wright), a naturalist who has hunted and killed a man-killing wolf previously. According to Medora, other children have previously been snatched by the canine renegade, and she is not expecting to find her boy alive again. But she implores Core to track and kill the culprit so that she can have some closure, and also some answers for her husband Vernon (Skarsgård) when he returns from U.S. army manoeuvres in the Middle East. Core accepts the task, hoping to reconnect with his estranged daughter in nearby Anchorage as well. But as he diligently hunts the beast, the search for the missing child leads to some disturbing revelations…
If you skim your eyes over any brief synopsis for “Hold the Dark” (including the one above), it could come across like a Lifetime Channel drama, or an eclectic mix of “The Grey” and “Fortitude”… but it really, really isn’t like that at all. That basic premise summarised above is pretty much set-up within the first 10 minutes or so. The other 110 minutes spin off into some very dark and foreboding territory indeed. Somewhat erroneously categorised as “action and adventure” by Netflix, this is an uncompromising film that is likely to appeal much more to those in the horror community, than those after a straightforward thriller. It’s like a (really) dark season of “Fargo” or “True Detective” in tone. And like the two previous movies from Saulnier, it certainly has its fingers in more than one genre pie.
We’ll admit that we haven’t read the original novel, but the script from Blair (who appears briefly as a drug-addled buddy of Vernon) embraces indigenous mythology with references to “wolf spirits” and “demons”. Along with the frozen and isolated setting, it makes for a hypnotic and unorthodox tale of murder and betrayal. It’s by no means as straightforward a narrative as “Green Room”, and the movie takes a number of unexpected twists. Shocking moments come completely out of nowhere, a number of which completely change the direction of the plot. As you may expect from Saulnier, his portrayal of bloody violence is achingly realistic. If somebody gets stabbed, shot, or hit with an arrow… you can bet that the effects from that will be gruesomely realised, and the character at the receiving end won’t be shrugging it off like the lead in a PG-13 action movie. It’s his attention to detail, and refusal to “sugar-coat” brutality that makes for some of the most stunning sequences. There’s a jaw-dropping “siege” that is unremitting in its intensity, a brief juxtaposition to the Middle-East with some disturbing moments, and innocent well-intentioned people are horribly killed or maimed for no good reason… other than being collateral damage.
The story also contains plenty of other layers that intrigue as well. The themes of parenting and relationships run through the middle of the plot. The feral nature of the wolves is easily compared to that of human behaviour, especially during an opening monologue between Core and Medora. And at least two actions performed by the furry felons are exactly mirrored by lead characters. There are some creepy moments involving wolf-masks, and one surreal set of shenanigans perpetrated in near darkness by someone with dodgy intentions. Although the film was actually shot in Alberta, Canada rather than Alaska, it frequently dazzles with the natural landscape (although it would be impossible to point a camera at this scenery and fail to make it look awesome). Praise is also due to Wright for effortlessly imbuing his role with dignity and gravitas, as well as some inherent decency. A tip of the hat to James Badge Dale as well, for his beleaguered cop Donald Marium, who embodies the best possible authority figure in the circumstances. By contrast, although Skarsgård transfers his patented menacing-bloke-with-layers persona effectively to the film, his Vernon feels underdeveloped when compared with others, although there are plenty with somewhat thin characterisations, including Keogh’s (speak-up!!) turn as Medora.
Although it’s been marketed as a more cohesive thriller, there are some issues with pacing, with the film feeling a little directionless following a cataclysmic event roughly at the midway point of the narrative. It slows a little, and many are going are going to be inevitably disappointed by the slightly underwhelming final act, seeing a lack of conclusion to certain plot strands. It’s a comparatively long film, and Saulnier takes his time telling it, dwelling on plenty of incidental details but never really answering some big questions. That aside if you’re a fan of his work and his style of storytelling (especially if you loved “Blue Ruin”), this will be a welcome further offering for your viewing pleasure.
In summary, this is an atypical thriller with clear genre influences and some great performances, not to mention some superbly orchestrated scenes. Along with (the hugely underrated) recent zombie film “Cargo”, this is another “Netflix Original Film” that proves that particular classification does not have to indicate an inferior product. It’s a good looking movie that will surprise with its directions and grim tone, and will appeal to those looking for something different from their “crime movie” fix. Not perfect perhaps, but still plenty to hold the attention, and will linger in your imagination far longer than you expect it to…