Jeremy Saulnier’s 2016 breakthrough, “Green Room,” depicted a traveling punk band held captive by a gang of white supremacists in a remote corner of Oregon. For his fourth and most ambitious film, “Hold the Dark,” the director returns again to sinister goings-on within secluded, rural communities, only this time the evil at hand is much more Judge Holden than David Duke. Boasting the sort of shocking brutality and unnerving menace that has become Saulnier’s signature, “Hold the Dark” is also a strangely seductive film, and one that understands the difference between simple plot resolution and catharsis, leading us on a journey into Alaska’s frigid heart of darkness that poses more questions than it answers.
“Hold the Dark” is unflinchingly violent, at times almost excessively so, and yet its starkest act of savagery occurs in the first few minutes, and is all the more haunting for its ambiguity. In the desolate Alaskan output of Keelut, we see a young boy (Beckam Crawford) playing with toy soldiers in the snow, a lone wolf suddenly appearing in the background. In the next scene, his mother Medora (Riley Keough) locks her basement door and takes a glance outside: the toy soldiers are still there, but the boy is not.
Soon after, she sends a letter to Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a semi-retired nature writer who once spent time living amongst a wolf pack in the wild. She’s read his book, and asks him to travel to the village to hunt down the wolves that she believes took her son. (“You have sympathy for this animal, please don’t,” she writes.) Grizzled, hoarse, and possessed of an ineffable sadness, he arrives. His initial conversations with Medora raise more than a few red flags – she talks ominously about the encroaching darkness surrounding the village, mutters to herself in the bath, and eventually appears to him wearing only a tribal wooden wolf mask – but he agrees to track the pack for her all the same.
Keelut appears to be a fictional town, and the Inuit word it’s named after might well constitute a spoiler, but Saulnier creates a starkly believable milieu out of these rusted trailers poised on the edge of deep wilderness, every frame steeped in dampness, darkness and dread. Which makes it all the more jarring when the setting abruptly switches to the sun-bleached expanses of Fallujah, Iraq, where Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) is on active duty. Vernon rarely speaks, but we learn everything we need to know about him by his icy affectlessness as he guns down a truck full of militants in the desert, then later happens upon a fellow serviceman raping an Iraqi woman and stabs him to death. He’s hardly had time to cover up the murder when a sniper’s bullet grazes his neck, and he’s sent back home to Alaska, where Russell has since made a gruesome discovery, and Medora has vanished.
By this point, it’s clear that “Hold the Dark” is going to be neither a man-vs-wild saga nor a simple whodunit, but the turns it takes once Russell and Vernon come face to face are best left to be discovered, as the mechanics of the narrative fall away and it plunges headlong into Hobbesian horror. Like “Green Room,” “Hold the Dark” gets less and less suspenseful as it nears its final act, although in this case it seems to be at least partially by design, as the characters start to lose their specific humanity and move more into the realm of archetypes, playing out some preordained if still mysterious ritual. The screenplay (by Macon Blair, adapting William Giraldi’s novel) offers sparse exposition, yet it never falls into the trap of so many thrillers that rely on carefully withheld information to generate tension: here, the things left unsaid are rarely just unknown, they’re unknowable.
Both of the film’s protagonists (as Vernon eventually becomes) are men of few words, and it’s intriguing to watch the divergent approaches Wright and Skarsgard take to their austere characters. For Wright, looking older than his 52 years, the key to his character appears to be exhaustion, as his time in the wilderness has snuffed out most of the energy required to maintain social graces, though the actor keeps an undercurrent of kindness flowing beneath the rough exterior. For Skarsgard, once again exploiting his smoldering looks and imposing frame for the most sinister ends imaginable, it’s something more primal, and his nearly telepathic exchanges with Cheeon (an excellent Julian Black Antelope), a Yup’ik man from the village, testify to something much darker and more chthonian than the film ventures to explain.
Saulnier remains fascinated by violence, and while there are a few shots here that wouldn’t be out of place in an ‘80s slasher flick, his depictions of bloodletting are more measured and purposeful than in previous outings. When Vernon is shot in the neck in Iraq, for instance, Saulnier holds the camera on the washes of blood pulsing out of the wound for much longer than seems strictly necessary – most directors would shrug off the injury as a narrative contrivance to bring Vernon back to Alaska, but Saulnier keeps it front and center in the frame until we’re tempted to turn away. A vicious standoff midway through the film takes this impulse to its logical conclusion: in just about any other film, it would have been played as an action setpiece, propulsive and exciting. Here it’s nasty, brutish, and long.
With Native American characters playing memorable if secondary roles, and Yup’ik spirituality playing an oblique if important part in the story, some of the film’s elements lean uncomfortably close to the “built on an ancient burial ground” style of supernatural exoticism. Whatever one thinks of Saulnier’s execution in that regard, however, this sort of othering doesn’t seem to be his intent. Rather, he’s trying to take a hard look at lives lived on the brink of an abyss – whether that abyss is the pitilessness of nature, the madness of war, or the casual cruelty of a colonial civilization – and what it does to people living there when the abyss looks back.