If you come to this movie expecting something from the director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, and from the writer of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, you will be bitterly disappointed. If you don’t, you will be merely disappointed. Either way, you will sit through a slow and meandering thriller [sic] that flirts with mysticism and biology, but eventually wanders out into the wilderness with no place specific in mind. Director Jeremy Saulnier and writer Macon Blair seem curiously uninvested in this adaptation of a novel. Hold the Dark plays out as if it were thrust onto a director and writer who don’t quite know what to do with it. It lurches along like something based on a book that doesn’t lend itself to a screenplay.
The story and tone live in the same latitudes as a Scandinavian crime potboiler, but minus clarity or focus. It begins intriguingly enough. A woman calls upon a naturalist to track down the wolf that killed her son. He’s ambivalent about the whole thing, and he even has ulterior motives for answering her call. As you’ll discover over the course of two hours plus a little change, the movie isn’t even about this.
Jeffrey Wright is one of his generation’s greatest actors. So why is he spending so much time playing characters who are mostly just confused? His role in Hold the Dark is too similar to all those hours in Westworld he spends not knowing what’s going on. Compare this to Wright in A Single Shot, also a slow dark thriller about violence in remote rural tracts, in which he’s devastated because he knows precisely what’s going on. At times, it’s not even clear whether Hold the Dark is about him. At times, it’s about whatever is going on with Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgard, who are the opposite of confused, but aren’t inclined to share with the rest of the movie what they know.
The real standout moment in Hold the Dark is an encounter between James Badge Dale and an actor named Julian Black Antelope. Dale is a typical outsider sheriff you find in movies, policing people he can’t possibly understand, but not for lack of trying. He is compassion and justice in a situation where compassion doesn’t help and justice doesn’t exist. Antelope is an aggrieved Native American left to wither in a backwater village. He looks like Christopher Lee and he’s even got a touch of Lee’s imposing presence. Hold the Dark explodes into life during their scene, and here you can see Saulnier bringing in the poignance of Blue Ruin and the cruel bite of Green Room. The exchange between these two characters belongs in a better movie.
Taylor Sheridan wrote and directed Wind River, which is what Hold the Dark feels like it’s attempting. Both movies try to express how different it is in the remote northern wilderness. How the air and land and people are of a piece, and none of those pieces fit neatly into the modern world of cities and multiculturalism and social safety nets. Both movies are punctuated by bursts of horrifically plausible violence. Both movies have important points to make. But only one movie manages to bring together its characters with its setting and its themes. It’s not Hold the Dark.