Do We Belong Here? Jeremy Saulnier's Hold the Dark (2018)
Hold the Dark (2018)
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Written by Macon Blair
Produced by Russell Ackerman, Eva Maria Daniels, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, John Schoenfelder
Based on the novel Hold the Dark by William Giraldi
Cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck
Edited by Julia Bloch
Addictive Pictures, VisionChaos Productions, FilmScience
Distributed by Netflix
Alaska, the setting of Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film Hold the Dark, is the least visited state in America. Even if we’ve never been to Brooklyn, Virginia, or Oregon (the settings of Saulnier’s previous films Murder Party (2007), Blue Ruin (2013), and Green Room (2015), respectively), we probably know enough about them to serve as a point of entry for those stories. Alaska, however, remains an open question for many Americans. Even those who have visited the state probably stopped in only a handful of places such as Glacier Bay National Park, the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, or the state’s largest city, Anchorage. But as one of the characters in Hold the Dark points out in reference to Anchorage, “That city is not Alaska.” We might think we know something about the state, but the vastness of its land contains mysteries most people have never dreamt of, elements as ancient as the land’s first sunrise and as unknowable as its origins. It is the perfect setting for Hold the Dark, one of the best and least-appreciated films of 2018.
By using an Alaskan setting, Saulnier makes it clear that fans of Blue Ruin and Green Room should expect something very different from this movie. The stark opening image of a small settlement of cabins in the midst of a snow-covered wilderness suggests a man-against-nature theme, but we soon suspect something more sinister is about to transpire. We hear yelping dogs and see a young boy playing with a green toy soldier in the snow. The boy stops long enough to see a wolf staring him down from several yards away. Several moments later, when his mother opens the cabin door, the boy has vanished, leaving the toy soldier stuck in the snow, his rifle futilely pointed at the snow peak.
Convinced that her son has been taken by wolves, Medora Slone (Riley Keough) contacts author and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), urging him to travel to Keelut, Alaska, to track down and kill the wolf. “This happened twice already here,” she says in her letter to Core. “No one in the village will hunt them and I am alone here now…. I do not expect you to find my son alive, but you could find the wolf that took him. Come and kill it to help me…My husband will come home from the war soon. I must have something to show him.”
When Core arrives, Medora (and possibly the audience as well) is surprised to find a not-very-fast-moving middle-aged man. “Oh,” she says upon his arrival. “You’re old.” Not only that, but Core also appears to be very much out of his element. He’s not even dressed for wolf-hunting, especially not in Alaska, and we wonder how long ago he wrote his book on wolves and how much actual experience he has hunting them. Saulnier gives us a character in Core that also stands in for the audience: we’re not prepared for this venture either, but here we are and there’s no turning back.
What happens next constitutes one of the most important (perhaps the most important) moments in the film. Core begins by asking Medora for some background information on her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier fighting in Iraq. “Someone on the radio said it’s not a real war,” Medora says. “He said he’d never leave me. Words can’t be worthless like that.” To be sure, these words aren’t worthless at all. Medora has more to say about Vernon, things I won’t disclose here because I believe they hold the key to understanding the movie. Hold the Dark is not wordy by any means, but the dialogue is crucial, devoid of throwaway lines. One aspect of the narrative that makes it challenging and perhaps even vexing is the way information is conveyed. Hold the Dark does not take place in a comic book universe in which either information is dumped out or the audience is already well-schooled in its history and lore. We’re unfamiliar with the world of Hold the Dark, but the dialogue tells us everything we need to know if we’re paying attention.
Yet the film’s actions are just as important. During Core’s first night in Medora’s cabin, she comes into his room wearing only a mask. We think this is going to be a sex scene, but instead Medora lies next to Core, takes his hand, and places it around her neck, squeezing. What does this mean? Is she sleepwalking? Insane? So stricken with grief she doesn’t know what she’s doing? Moments later we see Vernon stationed in an Iraqi village, where he witnesses the rape of a local woman by one of his fellow soldiers. Vernon does something here we don’t totally expect, an action we are left to contemplate. Like the previous scene with Medora and Core, the audience must file this moment away for later consideration.
Too many scenes such as the ones indicated above and you risk losing your audience, yet even if Saulnier may be slow to reveal elements of the plot, he’s very generous in revealing both drama and tension through his characters. These are complex people in complex situations in a complex location. As much as we want to understand the story, we want to understand the characters, and as we pick up nuggets of information (both verbal and visual), the ambiguity of the film begins to dissipate. Somewhat.
Clues begin to mount. Core encounters an old woman in Medora’s village, a woman either crazy from living in a remote area of Alaska for too long or someone who may hold the key to the answers he’s seeking. She tells Core, “That girl knows evil. She’ll tell you. Go back the way you came… Leave us to the devils.” Core also makes an important discovery in the basement of Medora’s cabin, a discovery that changes everything and hastens Vernon’s arrival from the war.
One of the men who may hold the answer to the mystery of the boy’s disappearance is Vernon’s friend Cheeon (chillingly played by Julian Black Antelope, an actor easily as intimidating as Ian McShane or Javier Bardem). When confronted by local police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), Cheeon says of Medora and Vernon’s missing son, “That boy’s nothing of your kind anymore. He’s no longer of the earth… When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed… the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”
Saulnier’s previous films work as contemplative thrillers containing moments of brutal violence and Hold the Dark is no exception, featuring an eight-minute shootout that will leave you breathless. Yet most of the violence in the film seems to come from something we can’t quite understand. Viewers might ask themselves what’s behind all these killings. Is it simply the natural world of the wild at work in animals and (perhaps) humans? Is it supernatural? Is this a monster story? An examination of a place where humans were never meant to settle? What is it about this part of Alaska that attracts people to it? It’s not for everyone; maybe it’s for no one.
Hold the Dark may be telling us that there are places where normal people have no business trying to make a life. To most people, Alaska is still a very unfamiliar place and perhaps what’s going on in the film speaks to that unfamiliarity and acts as a warning: stay away. The concept of being where we don’t belong is central to understanding Hold the Dark, but there’s more to it than that. There are elements of this part of the world we may not understand and those elements could very well be supernatural or so unfamiliar to us that they appear supernatural. In the midst of this adventure, we could find ourselves, like Core, attempting not only to make these discoveries about the land, but also about ourselves. We like to compartmentalize and label things in order to navigate the world, but when you encounter people and things not-so-easily identifiable, you may begin to question not only them, but also yourself.
In a recent interview, Saulnier stated that the film “invites the audience to really lean in and participate in finding their own interpretation of the story, as opposed to a movie that ends with someone’s head exploding and people know(ing) when to high-five before the credits roll.” Hold the Dark invites the viewer to engage with it, asking questions and examining the unfamiliar right along with the familiar, coming to grips with our capacity to grasp what we can understand and gaze in wonder at the rest.
Photos: Dead End Follies, Bloody Disgusting, Thrillist, Entertainment Weekly, IMDb