“Hold the Dark” is a self-fulfilling psychological thriller that leaves the viewer torn between the impulse to embrace its beautiful presentation and to recoil in horror at its chilling subject matter.
Though both the film and the book on which it is based are set in the wilds of Alaska, “Hold the Dark” was filmed in Canada and Morocco.
“There was not a single green screen on this set the entire film,” said director Jeremy Saulnier at a question and answer session at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The wild landscapes are properly awesome, and mountains, frozen lakes, and forests frequently dwarf individual characters. Nature is both beautiful and cold in “Hold the Dark,” completely neutral to the horrors which her inhabitants may commit — which is the drama of the film (warning: spoilers ahead).
When her young son is reportedly taken by wolves, Medora Sloane (played by Riley Keough) pleads with behavioral scientist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) to track down the guilty wolf. She harbors no false hopes her son is still alive, but wants “something to show” her husband (played by Alexander Skarsgård) when he returns from his tour in the Middle East.
Having spent a year among wolves, Core is at home in both human and animal worlds. He does indeed track the boy’s killer — who proves to be Medora herself, not a wolf. Vernon Sloane returns at the news of his son’s death and hacks a bloody trail through the Alaskan wilderness tracking down Medora, while Core and local law enforcement scramble to get to her first.
Unlike Jeremy Saulnier’s previous films, “Hold the Dark” lacks a tight, coherent plot. The horror of this film is not “what happened” but “why.” Saulnier relies heavily on a cohesive aesthetic, combining everything from wooden wolf masks to monstrous mountains to flickering firelight to immerse his viewer.
While Wright called the script “one of the most descriptive and lyrical and evocative” he’s ever been given, the film goes the understated route, using quality more than quantity of speech. Dialogue is often minimal or choppy, usually whispered or growled. Many scenes are left without a soundtrack, mimicking the near-complete isolation of Alaskan wilderness.
When Saulnier opts for music, the soundtrack never cushions anything; instead, it sharpens the emotional experience, using growling cellos or primitive chanting, acting much the same as the stark beauty of the natural landscape.
Violence forms the basic vocabulary of “Hold the Dark,” as the first scenes portray the implied capture of the son by a wolf and the graphic knifing of an American soldier whom Vernon stumbles upon raping a native woman. Whether irrational or just, violence is the universal means to particular purposes.
A gory gunfight consumes about half an hour in the middle of the film, as the one friend Vernon has gives him a headstart on pursuing his wife by poking a machine gun out of his attic window and slaughtering the local police department. But the viewer’s initial horror is quickly numbed. The viewer quickly becomes a detached bystander, interested only in outcome and not in casualties.
“Hold the Dark” is true to its name; it teems with darkness, both physical and moral. I punched my brightness key probably 17 different times just trying to discern the scenes lit only by firelight, which gives a primitive feel and ghost-story atmosphere.
Darkness is both within and without, as Medora says: “Do you have any idea what’s outside those windows? How black it gets? How it gets in you?” Saulnier exposes the irrational forces that drive these characters by refusing to give a neat explanation for the horrors they commit.
Both science and myth, represented by the behavioral scientist Wright and a local native American Indian woman (played by Tantoo Cardinal), fail to give closure to the horrors committed in this movie. The best answer Wright and the sheriff can give for Medora murdering her son is that she wanted to “save him from…darkness. In her. In him. Outside her window.”
Indeed, outside the sheriff’s kitchen in this scene is the impenetrable Alaskan night. Despite the night outside the window that frames Wright and the sheriff, this is hardly a sufficient invocation of sympathy for Medora. The audience is left without a satisfying explanation for her actions.
Against the villagers’ belief that Medora is possessed by the spirit of a wolf, Wright helpfully points out that wolves eat their own too; we witness them devouring one of their own in an early scene. “In behavioral terms, savaging,” he said.
Though the sheriff condescendly remarks “I’m not talking about animals here, Mr. Core,” his comment rings false. The barrier between man and animal is as thin as the plywood walls of the little Alaskan outpost huts. The audience bears witness to the human capacity for evil against the sheriff’s testimony and our will. In “Hold the Dark,” both man and animal kill and spare without reason, underscoring the lack of any underlying law of man or nature.
“Hold the Dark” opens to belly growls of cellos and a quote from poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Wreck of the Deutschland:” “O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth.”
Unlike the Jesuit poet, who portrayed the hope that a nun found in suffering while being drowned at sea in a snowstorm, we get neither intellectual closure or hope from “Hold the Dark.” Man is “after evil,” unteachable by science or by myth.