Three children have gone missing from a small, very small, very isolated community in Alaska, snatched by wolves. One of the grieving mothers, Medora (Riley Keough), hires wolf expert and writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) to track and kill the wolf or wolves responsible.
But the wolves are not the villains of this story.
First, the Alaskan landscape. It’s frozen, much colder than what cold passes for anywhere else. It’s unforgiving. It’s unknowable. It’s remote. There are only 5 hours of daylight at midday. It’s a blank canvas, a blanket of white, relentless and renewing, where even your own footprints are quickly snowed in and covered over; one wrong step can mean the difference between life or death. It’s no place for a novice like Core, but he’s got some demons of his own that keep him from making better judgments.
Second, the village. Or rather the villagers. They’re an insular tribe and don’t take kindly to outsiders. The environment is hostile in every sense of the word. They don’t cooperate with the law.
Third, the grieving parents. Grief makes a person crazy. Some people were crazy to begin with. Medora was on her own when her son went missing, her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) away at war. Injured, he gets sent home to a probably-dead kid and a mentally disturbed wife. There aren’t a lot of times when war is the preferable scenario, the kinder one, but I think this it.
I read the novel upon which this is based (by author William Giraldi) but this screenplay is adapted by the twisted mind of Macon Blair, so I know I’m in some sort of trouble. He’s beefed up the part of Vernon for Skarsgard, sure, and he also makes sure every bit of violence is as graphically gory as possible. What else do we expect from a Jeremy Saulnier movie? The man loves to taunt us with threatening, ominous images and then leave us exposed to whatever chaos may come. It’s an exceptionally tense way to watch a film, but if Saulnier isn’t throwing you into minor cardiac arrhythmia, he feels you aren’t getting your money’s worth.
Saulnier is a master of making you shit your pants, and if anything, Hold The Dark is a little lighter on the anxiety-ridden dread. But while we buckle up for a movie about wolves and wilderness, it’s actually humanity who shows itself most vicious, and that’s all Saulnier. There are so many twists in the tundra it can be hard to keep them all straight, and you’re never quite sure just what kind of movie you’re watching, but it’s a bloody, vengeful rampage and it will not have a happy ending.