If you have patience on par with that of people carving out an existence in remote Alaska, “Hold the Dark” is a meditative blend of wilderness Earth porn and a serial-killer pursuit, loaded with talented actors. Although I heard about this Netflix movie from Entertainment Weekly’s Fall Horror Preview, viewers who look for scares or intense psychological drama will be disappointed. It definitely has violence, but if it’s a horror film, it’s also a war film and certainly a Western.
It begins as author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) travels to remote Alaska to hunt a wolf at the request of young mother Medora Slone (Riley Keough), whose son – along with other area children — has been taken by the animal. The immediate tone is grim, as everyone is certain the boy is dead; the wolf hunt is merely for the sake of closure. Medora’s village is so off the beaten path that she says of Anchorage, by way of comparison: “That city is not Alaska.”
“Hold the Dark” was filmed in Alberta, and director Jeremy Saulnier – who has a background in cinematography – and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck take full advantage of the snow-capped mountains and evergreens, particularly in a wonderful shot of a biplane’s journey. This is what’s off the edge of the frame in “Fargo” (also filmed there), which sticks to city streets, since the U.S. Midwest is just a bit flatter than the Canadian Rockies. Even better, the film takes us into the grit of the village, plus an old mining camp, and it makes us think about the logistics of staying warm, bathing, finding food and other basics.
Whether this village is part of civilization at all is perhaps the film’s central question. When police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) and murder suspect Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) talk in Cheeon’s doorway, one is forced to ask if there’s any point in enforcing law and order in a place like this. The duo’s discussion slowly but surely builds into an unnecessary slaughter. It’s the best piece of acting in a film that includes the star power of “Westworld’s” Wright and “Big Little Lies’ ” Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Vernon, Medora’s husband and Cheeon’s friend.
“Hold the Dark’s” horror-genre qualification – in addition to some gory kills – is the hopelessness that permeates every frame. As one person kills for reasons that start off sketchy and range to pointless, death spreads out like concentric waves. When Russell and Donald venture into the wilds in pursuit of this killer, it’s scary not only because they’ve left civilization and the likelihood of rescue should they get into a tough spot, but also because their opponent follows no rules of decency.
Written by Macon Blair from a book by William Giraldi, “Hold the Dark” veers far away from its initial premise of Russell hunting a wolf, yet it arguably sticks with that plot metaphorically. There are deeper themes to chip away at here if one is so inclined, including what America’s endless war in the Middle East can do to a soldier’s psyche. But the film brushes past big ideas over the course of two hours, so the prominent takeaways remain the stark scenery and moody percussion score by Brooke and Will Blair.
“Hold the Dark” is not the first film to dwell on the emptiness of evil, but it does pull a viewer into the conversation with its sheer filmmaking style. It’s on the slow and overlong side, but it looks gorgeous and has some rewards for the more patient viewer.