Hold the Dark (2018)

Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

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Jeremy Saulnier’s movies are violent, even as far as violent movies go.  He gets creative with who dies and how, and in some ways it seems all of his stories are constructed in reverse, thinking of a shocking, sensational character death and then constructing a narrative that could lead to this point.

Other examples are Blue Ruin and Green Room.  The former has one of the more disturbing character deaths I’ve seen in recent memory, in which a rather undeveloped character is killed with a screwdriver to the neck, and the moment is incredibly grizzly due not to the emotion behind it but entirely due to the manner in which he is killed.

The violence of Hold the Dark is often like a clap of thunder, standing out from the low rumble of an otherwise eerie, atmospheric, grim film with long, purposeful silences.  The violence is often sudden and jarring and certainly when you least expect it, which is pretty amazing considering you expect it at any time.

The story takes place in a northern, snowy landscape like Wind River and Insomnia.  Such settings and such stories revolve around a murder and an investigator who seems to be slowly going mad.  In this case the murder is of a young boy, apparently killed by wolves, and the investigator is a writer, Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright).

The wolves are made threatening early on into the film and then again near the very end, however they never once touch Russell or anyone else.  Instead they just hangout on the fringes of the main conflict, caused entirely by humans.  The young boy killed by wolves, we quickly learn was actually killed by his mother, Medora (Riley Keough).  She’s the one who contact Russell and who blamed the wolves.

The wolves are an affecting image within the film.  Presented as dangerous, ruthless animals they are instead just a silent greek chorus, tangential to the main action.  In their dark-eyed stares, juxtaposed with the sudden human-inflicted violence, they seem to comment on the folly of man.  There is at least a definite irony as it’s they who watch the humans pick apart each other.

Hold the Dark feels very poetic, but to a degree it feels a little meandering.  There isn’t all that much plot, which is more than okay, but the long conversations, silences and thousand yard stares seem to me drawn out just to cover up how thin the story is.

I also found that the movie had very little heart around which to tell this grim tale.  There is a recurring theme of the strained relationship between parent and child, but I’m not sure what the movie wants to say about such a relationship.  The relationships in this movie are tortured, and if they’re metaphorical, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to gleam from it all.

Russell is our protagonist, but for much of the film he feels tangential to the main action. He’s hired to hunt down the wolves that are claimed to have killed the young boy, but it’s not long before we learn this was all a lie.  Then Medora disappears, and soon her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from war and hunts her down.  In the process he and a silent, loyal friend (much like Hanzee in Season 2 of Fargo) massacre dozens of cops and anyone else who gets in their way.

Russell is just an observer to all of this.  He does get involved in the action, but his involvement always feels contrived, just a way of giving him something to do other than starting hopelessly into the distance exactly like Wright’s character in Westworld.

Because the story bounces between characters either mysterious or outwardly evil, there is little hope or optimism to be enjoyed in this world.  The lone example is a police officer and soon to be father (James Badge Dale), but even what hope he once had seems understandably tempered by watching most of his men get picked off in a single shootout.

I suppose it’s all so grim that you wonder what the point is, both of the movie and of living within this world.  How do you find meaning when everything is so bleak?  It’s a question the movie poses but which might be better understood if we followed characters who didn’t all seem weighted to one side of this debate.  As it is every character is haunted or haunting.

The movie will end with Russell reunited with his daughter, a character never before seen but discussed in those quiet moments in which the main character is obligated to explain his backstory.

We still don’t see this person’s face in the final scene, and it’s easy to read this as just a dying man’s fantasy, but whether or not it’s real doesn’t seem to matter.  What does seem important is that it’s one of the only moments of nonviolent* grace within the movie, a way of counteracting the hopelessness of everything that came before much in the same way as the movie Fargo (1996).

*I say nonviolent because there’s a seen early in the movie in which Vernon, still on deployment in Iraq, comes across a soldier raping an Iraqi woman.  He calmly stubs out his cigarette, walks over to the solder and stabs him half a dozen times in the side, likely a calculated spot knowing it wouldn’t kill the man.  He then gives the woman the knife and lets her finish the job.  It’s a strange, disturbing scene for many reasons, of course, but it’s also a strange, alluring way of introducing this character.  It is unclear what role he will play in the story when we first meet him, and though he becomes the villain, this opening sequence suggests at least some modicum of compassion, even if it’s invariably tied to violence.

Up Next: Katzelmacher (1969), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Sunshine (2007)

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