Attempting to walk a tightrope between mysterious ambiguity and visual storytelling, Hold the Dark stumbles fatally into the abyss.
Director Jeremy Saulnier’s third film, Hold the Dark finds him in uncertain territory, not unlike protagonist Russell Core, stoically played by Jeffrey Wright. Where Saulnier’s first two films, Blue Ruin and Green Room, were clear-cut examinations of familial ties and the mortality of youth respectively, told through the lens of extreme violence, Hold the Dark is more ambiguous, more veiled, an exercise in solely visual storytelling with very few expository clues as to what’s really going on. Saulnier and screenwriter/actor Macon Blair decided to leave only narrative bread crumbs on this one, but tracking them proves to be as difficult as tracking snowflakes in a snowstorm.
When I try to think of a film that uses sparse clues to tell a story, sprinkling them by way of shot composition and flashes of subtly revealing dialogue, I always think back to Denis Villeneuve's Enemy. In Enemy, the story is hardly spelled out. On the surface it seems like a story about two men who look identical right down to the last detail, but Villeneuve infuses the frame with so much subtext steeped in psychology and personality, that you as the viewer understand there is something deeper going on, and you have a concrete starting point of clues to use to get to the meat of it all. Hold the Dark takes a similar approach, at least regarding mystery, but then forgets to tell us anything more, leaving us in a thematic mess of pathways without a roadmap to begin to make sense of it all. It's pretty much an exercise in pointlessness.
On the surface, Hold the Dark is ostensibly about how familial bonds are tested in the despairing outer fringes of American life, far and away from the big cities, in this case a remote Alaskan town, if you can even call it that; a dying village would be more appropriate. When Russell Core is called to this fringe by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), it is to avenge her child, killed by a wolfpack that calls the wilderness surrounding the town its territory. Absent her husband who is in Iraq, Medora calls on Russell to track and kill the wolf that did the gruesome deed because he has prior tracker's experience with just such a task. Even from the trailer we understand that this isn't the truth behind the story, which quickly spirals into a revenge flick of the type we can expect from Saulnier, and we settle in for the unsettling ride... until it spirals further into something wholly unrecognizable from what we thought we were watching.
I often rail against last minute twists to films; Take Shelter was a big one that infuriated me, and Hold the Dark does the same, although, admittedly, not for the same flashy reason of going "Aha!" to our faces. Hold the Dark does leave some clues as to the true state of things, but, unlike Enemy, you don't know they're clues until you're up late at night on reddit parsing through fan theories of what the hell was happening during its two-hour runtime. I know it seems like I've been hitting one note this entire review, but it's hard to overstate that the film is completely absent of cohesion, and as a result the viewer cannot come to the story conclusions that Saulnier wants, unless, perhaps, you're a veteran speculator on the Game of Thrones theory message boards, or you already read the book this film was based on.
That's not to say this film has nothing to offer. As with Saulnier's previous efforts, he brings the same dour, unsettling style to Hold the Dark. The shot composition is beautiful, and the frame practically sings with the scenic shots of cloud-ringed mountains and gullies of ice. The shots make use of a lot of natural light, giving a grit and realism that at once pleases the eye and oppresses the soul, for this is no happy place. The film is rife with creepy imagery, and I've had my fill of masks for a good long while. The action helps to carry the film along as well, punctuating the seemingly peaceful Alaska wilds with bursts of violent human darkness and noise, like a spreading infection. It really is an interesting film to watch visually, and the pacing is deliberate, but never sluggish.
Saulnier proved with his first two films that existential and philosophical questions about life and relationships served with a side of blood and gore are his bread and butter. But with Hold the Dark, his decision to take a much less direct approach precluded him from taking any approach at all. I just wish that he had understood that a story like this needs to have some type of revelatory conclusion, for, like Core, we are mostly passive observers to what we see unfolding, and we are none the wiser for it at the end.