If you stare into the darkness long enough…you’ll find the other side.
After a successful debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Jeremy Sauliner returns with Hold The Dark. A completely engrossing and dark thriller that will put a chill up your spine no matter how you watch it. Either during a limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, or whenever you please on the Netflix streaming service.
Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is a retired naturalist, wolf expert and author who gets called into service to travel up to a small outpost in the upper reaches of Northern Alaska at the behest of young mother Medora Sloane (Riley Keough) whose son was killed and dragged off into the woods by a pack of wolves. However things shift from tragic to downright disturbing when her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgaard) returns home from the Iraq War and sets off a violent chain of events. With local law enforcement led by grizzled cop Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) horribly out of his elements and a community descending into chaos with Vernon’s rampage; Core is forced into a dangerous odyssey. At the edge of civilization as he knows it staring straight into the savage heart of darkness that he sees in the vast wilderness in front of him.
With a very deliberate and measured pace, Hold The Dark might not be what you’d expect but it is packed with visual layers and nuance that mark Sauliner’s jump into a realm as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.
Granted it’s not to say that both Blue Ruin and Green Room both packed an impressive emotional punch as he’s not afraid to look down some dark alleys and explore some disturbing ideas but in collaboration with cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck things get downright bleak up there in the Alaskan wilderness and quite frankly, they really needed to be. He keeps everything sharp and engaging while still maintaining an oft kilter rhythm to the story that won’t be easily accepted by all. Sauliner keeps us on our toes by never wasting a frame and making all the movement feel vital and necessary.
Frequent collaborator Macon Blair wrote the screenplay, adapting it from the novel by William Giraldi and it all plays out like a gritty western, but in sub zero temperatures and in the snow. The open tundra or the desert, it’s all the same as the unforgiving wilderness that surrounds these characters is just fascinating to watch. The entire team behind this film really makes the extra effort to make sure that the elements all come alive on this one in a place where it is becoming clearer and clearer that people just have no business being in.
Jeffrey Wright is criminally underappreciated far too often in this business and as our leading man in this story he successfully gives us an every man who is neither heroic nor even overly compelling, but what shines through in such an honest way is the characters sense of right and wrong. Even at this remote Alaskan shanty town where the rule of law is probably more of a suggestion than anything else, this man who is thrust into a life or death struggle knows what he has to do and he doesn’t have to say a single word to justify it. Wright gives us days of emotion and psychological nuance and struggle in a simple glance and it works beautifully.
Alexander Skarsgård holds the other side of the equation opposite Wright with menacing ease, he’s well intentioned but terrifying all at the same time. Riley Keough was solid as Medora Sloane and James Badge Dale as our wayward cop delivers yet another strong and stalwart performance as a man of legitimate action but completely unprepared for the darkness that is staring him down.
It’s a little ironic that a film with three of the best character actors working today feels so epic yet condensed at the same time and I’d argue that makes it a perfect for Netflix as they make a serious push into theatrical realm. Hold The Dark has the grand sweeping scale and nuance of a director who knows how to make something that will draw you in along with the experience of a storyteller who gets the right people for the right parts. This story stays with you not only long after you’ve watched it once, but several times over. This is about as honest as cinema can get, drowning us in darkness but making sure we never lose sight of that glimmer of light.