Hold the Dark’s title is deliberately ambiguous—it could mean either holding the darkness at bay, or holding it tightly, as if in a warm embrace. That duality is at the core of this ferocious frost-bitten thriller from writer Macon Blair and director Jeremy Saulnier (2013’s Blue Ruin and 2015’s Green Room), who once again craft a suspenseful, ultra-violent saga of brutal men navigating a harsh environment with precise, pungent dread. It’s also central to their protagonist, an aged outdoorsman played with such masterful understatement and soulfulness by Jeffrey Wright, that, among other things, it reconfirms that casting the Westworld star is a surefire way to imbue a genre effort with potent gravity.
Not that Saulnier and Blair aren’t capable of doing that on their own, as their harrowing latest (debuting on Netflix on Sept. 28) superbly demonstrates from its introductory moments. In the tiny remote Alaskan outpost of Keelut, a boy is seemingly snatched by wolves—a dire fate that’s previously befallen two other local kids. The boy’s mother, Medora Sloane (an unsettlingly opaque Riley Keough), responds by writing to author Russell Core (Wright), whose scraggly grey beard covers much of his weathered face, and whose book detailed his year-long time spent living amongst wolves, as well as his killing of a particular wolf that had abducted a child. As Saulnier pans across Russell’s abode, filled with expressive painted portraits of wolves, Medora’s narrated letter makes clear her request: “Come and kill it to help me.”
Medora’s missive provides quick details of her situation (her husband is in the military, and she wants to “show him something” before he returns to learn of this calamity) as well as that of Russell (with whom she pleads “I know you have sympathy for this animal. Please don’t.”). Still, Blair’s sharp script purposefully leaves both characters enigmatic. At Medora’s cabin, Russell is given new boots and asked, “Do you have any idea what’s outside these windows? How black it gets?” At night, he wakes to discover Medora emerging out of her bathtub stark naked save for a terrifying animal mask, and then climbing onto the couch where he’s sleeping so she can place his hand around her throat as she quietly weeps. Drenching his frame in abyss-like shadows and setting his action to a combination of weighty silence and alarming cello strings, Saulnier laces this encounter with otherworldly terror, his camera moving with serpentine menace from dimly lit figures to intertwined fingers to the alternately horrified and traumatized eyes of Wright and Keough.
The next morning, Russell sets out on his mission, and quickly comes upon a pack of wolves whose members are snarling at each other over the half-eaten carcass of one of their pups. [Spoilers follow] After surviving an unintended confrontation with this pack, Russell returns to Medora’s home, which she’s fled—leaving behind in her basement the body of her son, whom she’d strangled to death. This turn of events naturally complicates Russell’s predicament, albeit not as much as the reappearance of Medora’s spouse Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), who gets sent home from some war-torn Middle Eastern desert after suffering a gunshot wound to the neck. Before that happens, however, Hold the Dark presents Vernon—embodied with fearsome stoicism by Skarsgård—manning a Humvee turret gun with methodical expertise, as well as stopping a fellow soldier from raping a woman by coolly sneaking up behind the monster and repeatedly knifing him under his arm.
Though Vernon is first glimpsed wearing protective goggles, it’s immediately clear that he has the cold, primal eyes of a wolf—thus making him a kindred spirit to his wife, who a local witch claims is a wolf demon who sheds her skin at night to run free, presumably howling at the moon. Russell howls too, during his initial search for Medora and Vernon’s offspring. Despite Hold the Dark’s decision to refrain from explaining precisely why he’s taken this assignment (it’s not for money, or glory), Russell is unquestionably a man in tune with—and compelled to indulge—his own animalistic nature. His attraction to the beastly and untamed has, we soon learn, alienated him from his wife and daughter, the latter of whom teaches at a university in Anchorage (“That city is not Alaska,” says Medora dismissively). Which, of course, means that he’s not that different from either the wolves he studies, or Medora herself—they’re all creatures willing to sacrifice their young for their own self-interest.
As Russell endeavors to help police officer Donald Marium (James Badge Dale)—himself on the cusp of fatherhood—track down both Medora and Vernon, Hold the Dark reveals itself to be a chilling portrait of the tensions between the civilized and the wild, the modern and the ancient. Saulnier visualizes this through panoramas of the frosty Alaskan landscape, whose two primary tones are the blinding white of the snow and the deep browns of the trees. Well, there’s also red, courtesy of the bloodshed that routinely punctuates the action. Even then, however, Saulnier’s carnage is as bleak visually as it is narratively, which is saying something, considering the grim, heavy-hearted atmosphere of his story.
From its depiction of rugged, hard-boiled men embarking on Conrad-ian odysseys into figurative wombs, to its ominously austere aesthetics and its overarching view of mankind’s bestiality, Hold the Dark confirms that Saulnier would have been an ideal fit for True Detective (whose third season he was supposed to spearhead, before departing after clashes with series creator Nic Pizzolatto). Also making one think that—an extended shootout between law enforcement and one of Vernon’s compatriots that’s defined by spatially coherent staging and startling butchery. Like in Blue Ruin, revenge factors into these proceedings, but only to a point, as the filmmakers gradually transform their scenario (initially reminiscent of like-minded efforts such as The Grey and Wind River) into a forlorn meditation on our basest instincts—and our capacity to transcend them.
Hold the Dark locates that struggle most potently in Russell, whom Wright infuses with a complex sort of sorrow—born from his understanding of (and empathy for) the feral ferocity that exists in this Alaskan outpost and, also, in himself, and his competing desire to quell it. Wright’s disturbed visage conveys his character’s torn-between-two-worlds distress, with the actor using darting looks and burdened body language to beautifully articulate the war raging within. Situated between Dale’s rational humanity and Skarsgård’s primeval ruthlessness, he’s an individual haunted by the animal he is, and the man he wants to be. He holds the dark closely, even as he strives to find the light.