The Alaska tourism board can't be all that thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier's "Hold the Dark," a grueling but beautifully shot mystery about a small town where it seems the very best quality of life one can hope for is crippling depression. That would be at least manageable compared to what the characters are forced to endure in this film, which presents a series of escalating tragedies and atrocities with a dead-eyed nihilism that should only be reserved for first-year philosophy students.
Adapted by Austinite Macon Blair from a novel by William Giraldi, "Hold the Dark" is about the fictional village Keelut, where wolves have been taking the town's children. A local mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keogh), is the latest to have her little boy go missing. With her husband off fighting in Iraq, she writes a letter to a wilderness expert, Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), asking him to come out to Keelut to hunt and kill the wolf that she believes has killed her child.
There is something off about Medora, and it's not just grief. She is haunted and strange and speaks like a simple and sedated but poetic child whose wisdom is only accidental. When Core arrives at her door, she looks at him quizzically. "You're old," she says, clasping the well-worn book he authored about living in the wild with wolves for year.
Core agrees to at least go out looking for the wolf, but one wonders why after he has an extremely disquieting encounter with Medora that night and then is told by a local villager the next morning that there is evil here and to go back where he came from.
In the forest, Core witnesses a pack of wolves eating their young and back in Keelut sees something far worse. What else could you expect from a town named after an evil Inuit spirit of death?
The film takes us next to the Middle East to meet Medora's husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), an emotionless soldier who will gun down the enemy without blinking and even stab one of his own to stop a rape he happens to witness while walking by. An injury earns him a ticket home, where their son's body has been discovered and Medora has gone missing, which sets Vernon off on his own confusing and bloody journey.
The introduction of James Badge Dale's local cop Donald Marium gives the film some much-needed life, and someone poor Wright can finally play off of, but this is frustratingly short-lived.
Those familiar with Saulnier's work — his last was the hyper-violent "Green Room" — will not be surprised by the relentless gore in "Hold the Dark." But newcomers stumbling upon this moody epic from Netflix might find themselves taken aback by the horrifying body count. There's a head stabbing, a chewed neck and an over 5-minute shootout — and those are just a few of the brutal ways people meet their end in "Hold the Dark."
At time it feels like jaw-dropping violence for violence's sake — a cartoonish manifestation of masculine frontier despair and desperation, like a lost season of "True Detective" that even Nic Pizzolatto would think was too bleak
Saulnier is expert at building tension and takes great advantage of the sprawling canvas he's been given, especially welcome after the intentionally claustrophobic "Green Room." But this is one that doesn't add up to anything sensical despite a whole kitchen sink of intriguing elements that include — but are not limited to — demonic possession, class issues, wolf masks and a lingering question about why two Nordic models are living in this town.
You can see why "Hold the Dark" might have made a compelling book, but the film is one grim and pitiless journey.