“Dear Mr. Core, three days ago my son Bailey was taken by wolves. This happened twice already here. No one in the village will hunt them, and I am alone here now. I have read your book. I know you have done this before. In my heart…I know that you are able to do it now. I do not expect you to find my son alive, but you could find the wolf who took him. Come and kill it to help me. I know you have sympathy for this animal. Please don’t. My husband will come home from the war soon. I must have something to show him. Sincerely yours, Medora Slone.”
If you were to ask me who are my top 10 favourite filmmakers who have burst onto the scene within the past decade or so, you probably wouldn’t find that many household names. Among the online film community, though, filmmakers like Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair are calving their own grim paths and leaving their bloody wolf-shaped tracks on the indie film world. Admittedly, I still haven’t seen Saulnier’s 2007 debut, Murder Party, but Blue Ruin and Green Room are two films that I keep coming back to time and time again. They penetrated my mind like few films do and impacted me in a way that is hard to describe. It’s not that they’re the most densely scripted films or that they’re jigsaws meant to be rewatched over and over to be fully understood, but there is something about them that crawls under your skin and makes that Blu-ray stand out when you’re stuck for something to watch. You don’t need all the money in the world to make great art, but talent and a vision go a long way.
Saulnier had written each of his previous three films—all of which starred Blair in either a leading or supporting role—up until Hold the Dark (which was scripted by Blair based upon the novel of the same name by William Giraldi). Blair, himself a director best known for Netflix’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, also handled various producorial duties on Saulnier’s first three films, which really signals this team as a duo among the best working today. These are multitalented individuals working under the constraints of smaller scale film productions, yet their voices are louder than any genetically-engineered dinosaur stomping its way onto the big screen every few years. Led by a star-making turn from Blair, Blue Ruin is one of the best revenge thrillers of the decade, using every penny of its $420,000 budget to stunningly gritty effect. And Green Room is as tense, nasty and audacious as any horror film in recent memory, featuring Patrick Stewart as you’ve never seen him before.
Three years after the release of Green Room, Hold the Dark is another boldly daring statement on Saulnier and Blair’s résumés, and something tells me these two are set for even greater success in the future. Having acted in all of Saulnier’s four films—while producing the first three and writing the fourth—Blair is clearly as important to Saulnier’s work as the director himself, and Hold the Dark finds the duo deep in the snowy fictional wilderness of Keelut, Alaska. But this is no winter wonderland…far from it. This isn’t the kind of place where you’ll find mega-rich yuppies skiing down the mountains, while their friends hold a glass of champagne in one hand and a mug of pumpkin-spiced latte in the other. No, this place is hell on earth. And hell has frozen over. It’s not the wolves we should be scared of in Keelut, as some of the people who live there are more dangerous and bloodthirsty than any of their lupine neighbours. Trust me when I say Hold the Dark is every bit a slasher movie as it is a thriller.
Hold the Dark starts with a pretty simple premise, which forms the basis of our journey. It’s December 2004 and Medora Slone (Riley Keough) calls for the help of wolf expert and retired naturalist, Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), to track down the wolves who had taken her son three days earlier. There have been two other presumed occurrences of child abduction by wolves in the fictional setting of Keelut, and Russell has been called to stop the predatory animals from taking more innocent victims. Well, that’s the premise at least, but being as this is a Jeremy Saulnier film, there are twists and turns and tonal shifts aplenty. Saulnier is the type of filmmaker who draws you into a world then slaps you around the face just when you think we’re getting somewhere. In a sense, Hold the Dark is not so much a whodunit but a whydunit. Clues are sprinkled throughout the film, giving us all the information we need right in front of our eyes while being obscure enough to easily pass us by on our first watch.
Though, there will be no miraculous ending in which Russell finds 6-year-old Bailey alive and well and returns him to his grieving parents. No, this film is as cold and unforgiving as the Alaskan setting itself. He’s dead. Wrapped in plastic. In his mother’s basement. Strangled by her own hands. Hold the Dark is a very apt title for a film that is so unrelentingly bleak and hyperviolent, as it lures us into a false sense of security with its mystery, all while setting us up for the tragedy that is just around the corner. We should’ve known Medora was to blame, as red flags are waved from the get-go. The first time we see Bailey we see him playing outside in the opening scene, which then smash cuts straight to Medora locking the basement door. The same door that’s later left open for Russell to find Bailey’s lifeless body, resulting in Hold the Dark’s first major twist. The use of masks is also a common theme played throughout the movie, hiding one’s face from the world to reveal the true monster that lives inside.
Bailey’s death by strangulation is also signalled early on when we see Medora get out of the bath naked, her face hidden by a wolf mask, and she cuddles up to the recently arrived Russell. She grabs his hand and proceeds to force it around her neck, shocking a clearly disturbed Russell in the process. Medora similarly makes more subtle references such as knowing her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), her entire life and mentions some hot springs that are, “a good place to get clean.” These things might not mean a whole lot upon first mention, but later on, we realise Saulnier and Blair have been weaving this web the entire time. Every bit of information is crucial, and you’re going to get more out of the narrative the closer you listen. It’s a slower film, for sure, but it’s heightened by various tonal shifts that are literally jaw-dropping. Saulnier is a master of catching you off-guard, and Hold the Dark is no exception. Everything can seem calm and quiet and then bang! He hits you with an uppercut.
Whether it’s the jump to an explosive war scene in Iraq or seeing Vernon brutally kill one of his fellow soldiers for raping an Iraqi woman, Saulnier likes to keep us on edge by constantly changing points of view. One moment Vernon is walking through the village then out of nowhere he is shot in the neck. The sound editing is fantastic, as we hear the bullet fly from the right side of the screen before it hits Vernon. In this moment, we see Vernon as a hero being sent home to recover, but it’s not long before he too reveals the monster within the man. For all intents and purposes, Skarsgård is our boogeyman. An oft-masked force of evil intent on killing everything in his path, which is learned after his arrival back in the U.S. when he shoots and kills two policemen intent on finding the runaway Medora. He then takes his son’s body to be buried in the woods with a blood offering placed on the coffin. This is Hold the Dark’s second big twist and sets up an unpredictable final hour full of carnage and bloodshed.
Aided by his friend, Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), Vernon is on the hunt for Medora and no-one will be able to stand in their way. We’re told earlier that Cheeon’s daughter was one of the two children who were actually taken by the wolves, but the pain shared is clearly not of the same kind. We’re warned at various points throughout the film that there might be something supernatural happening with Medora, and now the hunt is on to find her. One of the locals suggests, “Medora Slone is possessed by a wolf-demon. It is called a tournaq.” He doesn’t yet understand her reasoning, but Russell knows she’s the killer. The police, however, need more evidence. Not that there’s many police left at the end of Hold the Dark, as Cheeon rains destruction on the police force, injuring and killing countless men with a hailstorm of bullets that wouldn’t look out of place in a Rambo movie. It’s a powerful scene featuring some of the most grippingly tense and staged action 2018 has to offer.
On his journey to find Medora, Vernon kills almost everyone along the way. The list includes Illanaq (Tantoo Cardinal), the villager who seemed to know of Medora’s demons; John (Peter McRobbie), a hunter who helped Medora when she passed through the hotel a few days before; and his friend Shan (Macon Blair), who tells Vernon of Cheeon’s death in the shootout, stitches his wound after he got hit by a bullet fired from the owner of the hotel, and later gets killed when Vernon hears him calling the police on the phone. But why is Vernon killing all these people? Why did Medora kill their son? I’m not sure I have all the answers, and I’m not sure the characters are fully aware either. When talking to the cop who killed Cheeon, Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), Russell wonders if Medora was trying to save Bailey from the “Darkness. In her. In him. Outside her window.” It’s not a definite answer but Hold the Dark doesn’t wrap everything up in a nice little bow, as the ambiguity is a part of the narrative.
At this point in the movie, with only 20 minutes left, it’s a chase between who can get to Medora first: Vernon or Russell and Marium. Russell remembers Medora mentioning the hot springs shortly after they first met, and that is where he and Marium are heading by plane. But, of course, Vernon has already beaten them to the punch. He’s ready and waiting and kills Marium when he shoots an arrow from long distance. It is in this moment where I can see Skarsgård playing a fantastic Jason Voorhees. When he’s wearing Medora’s wolf mask, he reminds me so much of the classic slasher icon that he must have been on the minds of Saulnier and Blair. Specifically the Jason from the 2009 Friday the 13th reboot, who was seen as a survivalist and expert hunter more than just a man in a mask. Which also reminds me: you know that winter-set Friday the 13th movie that has been talked about and wished by fans for many years? It’s Saulnier’s and Skarsgård’s for the taking. I’m being deadly serious.
If Danny McBride and David Gordon Green can make a critically acclaimed Halloween movie in 2018, who’s to say Jason’s next big screen adventure can’t involve names like Saulnier and Skarsgård? They’ve already got my money. Anyway, back to Hold the Dark. The final part of the movie sees Russell find Medora hiding inside a cave, but Vernon is right behind him and fires an arrow straight through his chest. We then think Vernon is going to kill his wife…but he doesn’t. Instead, she takes off his mask and they embrace by kissing one another. Huh? Yeah, it seems like Vernon never intended to kill his wife but wanted to get her to safety before anyone else had the chance to take her away. He came to rescue her. After Vernon takes the arrow from Russell’s chest, Medora leans in and whispers, “Now you understand about the sky, don’t you?” Maybe we do understand, maybe we don’t. It’s a head-scratcher of a scene, and one that leaves many questions after Hold the Dark has faded to black.
Something that is up for debate is the true relationship between Medora and Vernon. I’ve not read the original novel, but apparently, it is made explicit that Medora and Vernon are actually brother and sister. Meaning their son Bailey is a product of incest and his killing was a sacrifice of sorts to allow the curse of the “darkness” to be lifted from their lives. The film doesn’t make this relationship explicit at all, but it is hinted at throughout the movie. Early on, Medora mentions to Russell that she cannot remember meeting Vernon for the first time because she has never known her life without him. Also, John, the hunter at the hotel, tells Vernon how he and Medora have exactly the same hair and eyes (noting their Nordic resemblance). Just like how a pack of wolves will sacrifice one of the younger to preserve the greater majority of the group, Bailey’s death is ostensibly the result of the same kind of thinking. The sacrifice of a wolf pup is actually paralleled with Bailey’s death earlier in the movie.
It’s a bit of a shock to see Medora and Vernon embrace each other, but Saulnier really does try to make us come up with our own conclusions. He gives us all the information we need to make our own judgements, but Hold the Dark is not interested in spoon-feeding us every plot point. We take from Hold the Dark whatever we want to take from it, and that’s a great thing in my eyes. Sometimes ambiguity is central to understanding a story, which I realise sounds like a paradox in and of itself. Not everything has to make sense, but if it makes sense within the internal logic of the story—mystical or not—then I’m more than happy to walk away without all the answers. We don’t need them. The final minutes of the movie see Russell rescued by a father and son passing by, and we later see him recovering in hospital with his estranged daughter by his side. Meanwhile, Medora and Vernon have retrieved Bailey’s coffin and trek through the snow, which leaves their fate well and truly in the dark.
If I’m being totally honest, I don’t think Hold the Dark is quite on the same level as either Blue Ruin or Green Room, but for all of its narrative ambiguities, Saulnier’s talent is undeniable. It’s as unsettling and deeply disturbing as anything he’s done, and the narrative shortfalls are far outweighed by the superb cast and Saulnier’s incredible direction. The film is full of shadowy atmosphere, stunningly photographed scenery and it feels very authentic on both a geographic and aesthetic level (even if it was filmed in Alberta, Canada, and not Alaska). Also, Hold the Dark must have been a difficult shoot as you can practically feel the coldness leaking through the screen, and it’s that authenticity that really makes it stand apart on a visual level. Saulnier’s directorial choices and Blair’s screenplay also force us to ask who is the predator and who is the prey? Who is hunting who and why? Are we humans more animalistic and feral than the wolves Russell was originally supposed to hunt? I think that’s a yes.
Hold the Dark is Skarsgård’s second Netflix film this year (having previously starred in Duncan Jones’ beautiful mess Mute), and his work here is much more suited to his ability as an actor. I felt he was severely miscast in Mute, which took all of the charm and presence out of an actor that has so much charm and presence. We’ve seen him be charming in True Blood, we’ve also seen him play a monster in Big Little Lies, and Hold the Dark finds him returning to a villainous role in fine form. Overall, I was a little disappointed with the lack of Riley Keough, who while very good and compelling in the scenes in which she’s involved, doesn’t really have enough screen time to do justice to her underrated talent. However, I’m glad to see the great Jeffrey Wright getting to play in this sort of sandbox, and he effortlessly embodies the world-weary Russell in Hold the Dark. He so naturally captures the tired, lonely Russell, and is an inspired choice to carry a movie like this with his fish out of water persona.
Hold the Dark is the type of movie that’ll be playing on my mind for weeks to come. I’ve seen it a few times now and I pick up something new every time. Lines that are otherwise throwaway in a lesser movie take on incredible depth that makes me think about character motivations in a whole new light. Lines such as Medora saying, “Do you have any idea…what’s outside those windows? How black it gets? How it gets in you?” or Vernon telling Bailey in a flashback that it’s good to kill people to “protect what you love and what you need” or John telling Vernon that his father went to see him when he was a boy to cure his “unnatural” ways with wolf’s oil. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait that long to see Saulnier’s work again, as he was tapped by Nic Pizzolatto to bring us into the world of 2019’s True Detective Season 3. Creative differences made them part ways after just two episodes, but at least all was not lost. I’ll be watching and I know 25YL will be watching, so I hope you’ll join us next year.
So, what are your thoughts on Hold the Dark? Does Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film live up to heights of Blue Ruin and Green Room, or does its somewhat confoundingly looser and difficult narrative take away from its aggressively unnerving visual mastery? Please leave a comment and let us know by following the information about our social media accounts, which can be found below. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter (@JonSheasby), and we’ll continue the conversation over there.