How Jeremy Saulnier got boring…
Jeremy Saulnier has not made a movie since 2016’s Green Room, probably my favorite from that year, so I had some anticipation going into Hold the Dark, his new movie for Netflix. Saulnier first came onto my radar as Matt Porterfield’s cinematographer, on such movies as Putty Hill and Hamilton. The other movie that he has made as a director is Blue Ruin.
Hold the Dark technically counts as a snow western, placing it among The Hateful Eight (2015) and The Great Silence (1968), by Sergio Corbucci, in this category. Like those movies, there is a bleakness of tone here.
There’s also a great action set piece, maybe the best I’ve seen all year, where the father of the girl who was taken by wolves stages a shoot-out with the cops, apparently as revenge for their inaction when it came to saving his daughter. Saulnier remains an adept director of violence. So inept, in fact, that I would place Tarantino and few others above him in terms of working directors and their handling of this difficult element. He makes it exciting and disturbing all at the same time, and he does not cut the violent sequences short. Bright red blood spurts from necks, juxtaposed against the cold dead snow, creating a sequence that is at once exhilarating and horrifying.
For some, since the release of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, movies about secret societies have only increased in popularity, not decreased. I believe this is tied to an increased interest in conspiracy theories among the public, and an increased distrust of old boys’ clubs like the Elk’s Lodge and the Freemasons, now believed to have ties to the Illuminati. Increased fascination in all of this has led to increased paranoia in our cinema. Not since the 1970s have paranoia and symbols been so popular in movies. The real-life paranoia of the ’70s was also a predecessor to the real-life paranoia we are experiencing today. Movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation from 1973 reflected this paranoia, and became precursors to the paranoia that we currently have in cinema.
Blue Ruin was a tone poem. Green Room was about the situation. Hold the Dark is about the dream logic. Unlike Blue Ruin and Green Room, where the story was thin but still there, there really is no story in Hold the Dark. It starts with the idea of one, but this idea is quickly derailed as the film becomes increasingly surreal. By the time Jeffrey Wright finds Riley Keogh’s son, supposedly taken by wolves and the reason Wright is in Alaska in the first place, dead and wrapped in plastic in the basement, the movie is in David Lynch territory.
The location work is strong here, arguably the strongest aspect of the movie, and it’s nice that Saulnier lets us feel the space of this small community in Alaska in which Riley Keough’s character and her husband, played by Alexander Skarsgard, reside, in a mildly stunning scene depicting Jeffrey Wright fleeing the house after finding the boy’s body and yelling for help.
There are Western tropes here. The stranger arriving in the small, divided town. The husband away at war, leaving the wife to fend for herself back home. These tropes have, however, been updated slightly, to fit the bloody, bizarre, 21st-Century version of a Western that is Hold the Dark.
Despite some strong elements, Hold the Dark ends up kind of feeling like a cop out. It never really follows through with the weirdness, and so much is left unexplained. Why did Keough call Wright to Alaska to help her in the first place? Did she really want him to find the body? The film’s biggest question, Why did she kill her son?, is also never answered.
Most of the film takes place in Alaska but was filmed on location in Canada. The screenplay was by Macon Blair, who also appears in the film briefly as Shan. Blair appeared in both of Saulnier’s previous movies, Blue Ruin and Green Room, starring in Green Room. The script was based on the book by William Giraldi, and we feel the movie’s novelistic intent, it just never seems to find a way to tie the pieces of the novel together. Even the characters sometimes feel that they’re in different movies, but they seem to connect more smoothly than certain story elements.
Ultimately, it all leads back to the hot spring Wright discovers early on, yet the journey seems pointless. There is a seemingly random scene in which Skarsgard’s character, Vernon Slone, visits an inn with one room, where he stayed as a boy. The only point to this scene is that Skarsgard gets his freakish-looking wolf mask; the sign of a hunter. Although this is a crucial element of his character, it seems strange that he would drive all the way out here, just to end up back at the hot springs. I hate to play the plausible here, and I’m not an all-story all-the-time type of person, but it would be nice if the plot wasn’t quite so thin here. This is a problem that I’ve encountered in a lot of recent movies. They set you up for a tantalizing story by introducing threads that never lead anywhere. It’s a narrative trick, a hook, which makes sense in our bait-and-switch world, but has no real place in storytelling.