“Right's got nothing to do with anything.”
This line is spoken in HOLD THE DARK, the new film from director Jeremy Saulnier. It's a response to someone expressing the unfairness of a violent situation. In that way, it encapsulates a lot of what Saulnier has been saying with his films up to this point. In BLUE RUIN, GREEN ROOM, and now HOLD THE DARK one thing is abundantly clear: violence is sudden, awful, and does not believe in fairness.
HOLD THE DARK begins with Medora Sloane, played with unsettling detachment by Riley Keough (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) sending a letter to Russell Core, played by Jeffery Wright (HBO's WESTWORLD), asking for help. Medora lives in a remote Alaskan village where her young son was attacked and taken by wolves. She reached out to Russel as he is an expert on wolves who has tracked and killed them before. She pleads for his help because her husband, played by Alexander Skarsgård (MUTE), will be home from deployment soon and she wants to have the remains of their son for him on his return.
HOLD THE DARK is a bleak film that unfolds in unexpected ways. You may read the synopsis of the film or see the trailer footage and have predictions on where the story will go. You will likely be correct as the story turns that the film sets up are dealt with early on and not really treated as shocking reveals. What's unexpected about this film is the way it handles the aftermath of these turns. The script by long-time Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair is multi-layered, dense, and will leave you as disoriented and haunted as Jeffery Wright's Russell as he searches to unravel the truth of this terrible situation.
The film is not just bleak in tone and story but also in setting. The snowy wilderness is omnipresent throughout. There are many shots of the actors framed against vast snowy backgrounds and at times the only sound of the film is the howl of icy wind, the crunch of snow under a heavy boot, or the buzz of a small space heater. If there was no story at all the film would still have a feeling of hopelessness based just on the way the harsh environment is presented.
A film like this could easily become unbearable but thankfully the strong direction of Saulnier and the editing of another of his long-time collaborators, Julia Bloch, keep the film engaging through every moment. They are aided in their task by strong performances from every cast member. Jeffery Wright has long been one of our greatest unsung actors and he delivers a great performance here as a decent man who just wants to help and ends up in over his head. Even in the scenes where Wright is called on to engage in action, he does so with utter commitment and believability. Alexander Skarsgård matches Wright in his level of commitment but where Wright exudes decency and earnestness, Skarsgård is all quiet intensity and, at times, menace. Riley Keough is absent from large parts of the film but she is the axis on which the story turns and her otherworldliness is fitting for a film that feels so different than our own. Special mention should also be made of the performances by James Badge Dale (IRON MAN 3), Julian Black Antelope (AMC's HELL ON WHEELS), and (pulling double duty) Macon Blair (BLUE RUIN) as locals who get caught up in the inevitable carnage the story leads to.
Speaking of the violence in HOLD THE DARK, if you have seen Saulnier's other work then you know to expect sudden, unflinching brutality and the film delivers more than its share to nearly everyone involved. Saulnier seems to relish taking action film tropes and playing them out with a sense of reality and cold harshness that matches the unforgiving nature of the film's setting.
Clearly, HOLD THE DARK is not for everyone but if you like Saulnier's particular sensibilities or films that reward deeper analysis then it is an easy recommendation. Just be prepared for a cold, dark journey.
HOLD THE DARK is available now from Netflix.