Put on your snowshoes!
Hold the Dark is a new Netflix film, so you might worry about the quality. However, this one is directed by Jeremy Saulnier (who did the much loved Green Room—though I didn’t like that one) and it stars Jeffrey Wright, so your worries might diminish. I mention Green Room because my complaints about that film are actually what a lot of people didn’t like about Hold the Dark, but I did.
The film is hard to place nicely into a genre, and this works for a lot of the film, but it can be jarring. It begins philosophical as we follow Russell Core (Wright) as he travels to Alaska to hunt a wolf that has taken a child. The grieving mother, Medora (Riley Keough) speaks in riddles as Russell tries to figure out what is happening. Things turn sinister quickly, and the film changes genre (completely) into a spiritually-tinged-mystery.
The stark change in content and tone might bother some (a lot) of viewers. I had initially watched the film hoping for more of a hunting story about grief and trauma, but instead we get a film packed with social commentary. While none of the sections or changes are bad in themselves, it is jarring. The Green Room handles these transitions better, but the new film hits harder and more adeptly at serious social issues. I am being vague here because I think experiencing this film without knowing as much as possible might be better.
The film looks beautiful. Granted, the amazing and haunting Alaskan landscapes make the scene setting a bit easier (compared to more indoor focused films). We also have poverty stricken towns that look poverty stricken. The world in which these characters interact works well and looks great. The acting is strong, and well-written dialogue carries almost every scene.
Violence comes in this film rapidly and brutally. The fragility of life is on full display here, and each moment of death carries with it more gravitas than run-of-the-mill action thrillers. The inherent darkness and ugliness of humanity runs throughout this film, and I loved these aspects.
Is it perfect? No. An unfortunate side-effect of the constant changing tone is that no one aspect is fully explored. None of them are poorly done, but more could have been done with each. Further, the narrative takes an odd turn towards the end of the film that left my more irritated than interested. (Not going to discuss it here, but the conclusion doesn’t work).
The 2-hour plus running time might also be a little bloated. The film paces itself well for the most part, but a couple scenes drag towards their predictable end. In short, the film is gorgeous, often poetic, incredibly ambitious, and deeply flawed. I enjoyed watching the film, but even as I write this one hour later I can feel aspects of it slipping away. It is worth a watch (I think), but I don’t see this one making a huge mark.