Just in time for the holidays: A critical review of “Hold the Dark” (2018)

Well, we began the year with a round of Netflix reviews (sort of), so we might as well end it with one more. Besides, we just hit the longest night of the year and Christmas, and New Years is on the way. What better way to spend it than with wolves of the two and four-legged variety?

A woman in a very, very remote Alaskan town (Riley Keough) writes to naturalist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), requesting that he track down the wolf that killed her son. Despite being an author rather than a hunter, Core hops on a plane and heads up. Unsurprisingly, he starts uncovering some dark secrets from the get go. The woman’s husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is also in town, recently returned home from military duty in Afghanistan. When he learns of the fate of his son, he goes on a rampage, and Core is caught tracking a different kind of predator.

“Hold the Dark” is based on a novel, and it shows. The film is leisurely with its pace and with its various epiphanies. While it’s slow to get off the ground, once it does, it tends to move–a battle between rural police and a lone shooter with a chain gun stands out as a tense and intense sequence–but even then it’s with more of a sense of dream-like wonder and fascination than sense of urgency.

The narrative also skips around a little bit, as if the screenplay has been reformatted from chapters; it was adapted by Macon Blair, who has worked with director Jeremy Saulnier a number of times as an actor, although perhaps the film’s pace owes more to editor Julia Bloch, who has a very interesting resume.

Director Jeremy Saulnier has helmed a couple of thrillers I’ve meant to see and a couple of episodes of “True Detective” I have seen, so he gets a pass; the cinematography, by one Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, perfectly pairs the relentless mood with nature-documentary prettiness.

The actors are a little less successful with this approach. Wright, who has the most to do as a truly literate hero, gets stuck playing a grumpy grandpa for most of the film. Well, maybe he is a grumpy grandpa by now. He does do it well. But just about everyone else in the cast is left playing characters that feel oddly shallow–but perhaps they’re less shallow than they are symbolic, like bullet points on a list of required ingredients for an alchemical equation.

“Dark” is a little esoteric–convoluted might be the right word–but there’s always something going on onscreen, so viewers shouldn’t get bored trying to figure out what’s going on off screen. The photography is as majestic and temperate as an iceberg, and both the script and the shots are layered with enough cryptic symbols to make Carl Jung choke on a pretzel. It’s the kind of film that rewards re-watching, assuming you want to re-watch something so downbeat. Whatever holding the dark means to you, this film has it covered.

Ultimately, “Hold the Dark” is obscure, bleak and cold as a wolf’s teat. It’s a little long on time and short on diversity of mood, but its constant atmosphere manages to be ominous, oppressive and chillingly beautiful. If that’s not a metaphor for the holidays, I don’t know what is.

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