There’s a certain atmosphere that materializes when one utters the name “Jeremy Saulnier.” Say it once, and the room fills with a sense of tin-flavored terror. Say it again, and the air chills, the sea stills, the wind tumbles from its peaks to nothingness on the floor. Say it a third time, and, well, Film Twitter would probably erupt into 280-character-a-piece mini-analyses on his past work — users wearing thick eyeliner and denim jackets in their display pictures standing behind Saulnier’s animalistic thriller Green Room as his best yet, those who have a soft spot for crowdfunded success stories arguing the grim Blue Ruin his true magnum opus. It would be no great leap in logic to liken Saulnier’s distinctive vision in the horror-thriller landscape to that of Wes Anderson’s in the world of all things pastel-painted and mellifluous. The man, a clear auteur after directing just three films prior to 2018, does bleakness, brokenness, and brutality like no other, always swinging for the fences when pushing all three onto a film reel.
That only makes it harder to write that Saulnier’s latest venture, a stunning but shaky adaptation of William Giraldi’s novel Hold the Dark, marks the first time he’s truly struck out.
Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright leads Hold the Dark as Russell Core, an author known for his expertise on wolves who agrees to assist grieving mother Medora Slone (Riley Keough) in tracking down a pack of wolves that killed her son, Bailey (Beckam Crawford). Though a man like Russell doesn’t seem the best for the job, he nonetheless travels to the remote village of Keelut, Alaska and finds that the indolent, seemingly inconsolable Medora is hiding a sinister secret — and that her Military Man husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård, who shows off some of his signature Big Little Lies quiet craziness here) is far more dangerous than any skeletons she keeps in her closet.
Once Vernon returns from his tour in Iraq (he’s sent home early after he’s shot through the neck), the kid-killing wolves become a secondary worry as he forges his own vindictive, blood-soaked path that runs just behind Medora’s. Murders, mysterious “possessions,” and a mask that will haunt anyone’s dreams follow — and the whole thing gets even more twisted once police officer Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) finds himself mixed up in the mess. (There’s actually a lot more at play in Hold the Dark, far too much to attempt to unspool and describe without spoiling or melting my own brain here.)
Looking at its pieces, Hold the Dark should work. Without, there was ostensibly good creative juju sloshing around behind the scenes, as Saulnier had his frequent collaborator, Green Room actor and Blue Ruin producer Macon Blair, on board as his screenwriter. Within, there are elements of vengeance (in Medora’s desire to see the children-chomping wolves be wiped out), of senseless death (in Bailey’s murder at his mother’s hand), of intangible danger (in the cloud of supernatural spook that hangs over Vernon). There also exists savagery, surrealism, and blown-open-wide sequences so cleanly shot they feel cutting as they play out across the screen — all things present in Saulnier’s reputation-making Blue Ruin and Green Room and things that have apparently become second-nature for him to perfect.
And yet, even with all the proper ingredients in its proverbial pantry, Hold the Dark can’t hold a candle to the rest of Saulnier’s short but stimulating filmography. It lacks a strong trunk to which its various branches can stretch freely, it’s missing the sprinkles of humor Saulnier usually adds in to break up bitterness, it goes without a punch-your-lights-in climax or cauterized, jaw-hanging ending. This absence leaves Hold the Dark feeling mirthless and mad, nowhere near as engaging, focused, or drawn taut as his other films.
From an exclusively visual standpoint, Saulnier and Blair’s rendering of Alaska’s sprawling, unforgiving wilderness perpetually impresses and spellbinds. Watching the film, one can’t help but feel transported to an ice-covered otherworld not just separate from the U.S. contiguous 48 but from Earth entirely. Sadly, though, the breathtaking topography simply isn’t enough to compensate for Hold the Dark’s wobbly bits. Unlike Saulnier’s previous directorial efforts, Hold the Dark seems to use its captivating aesthetic as a crutch rather than a well from which it can drink to quench the starved aspects of its inconsistent story. Beauty fades, quoth the Judge Judy, but a cobbled plot that skimpers along in some places and splashes out with untethered violence in others is forever.
In all, Hold the Dark is haunting in its story, rousing in its thrills, and gorgeous in its harsh Alaskan landscape that grows grossly beautiful the more blood spatters against the snow and the further into darkness our characters grow (s/o to cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck) — but it’s ultimately and undeniably a disappointment, despite managing to get a fair bit right.
While Hold the Dark is ambitious, as all Saulnier films are, it’s also confusing to watchers — and confused in its purpose. Hold the Dark never fully commits to the flavors of its cinematic recipe, never goes all in as a thriller or drives home its commentary on the chaos of the universe and of the humans who inhabit it, thus leaving it feeling like less than the parts of its whole. Saulnier tosses caution to the wayside with Hold the Dark, something he has done time and again and has historically benefitted from, but he would be sage to circle back to where he littered vigilance, pick it up, and tuck it in his back pocket for his next film. Let’s hope he remembers the way there.