Midway through Hold the Dark, a gun battle breaks out between a disgruntled resident of a rural Alaskan settlement and the local police. What starts out as a siege turns into a spectacle, with automatic weapons blazing, cars exploding, and blood flying in every direction. It’s the kind of showdown that would provoke instant national attention in real life, but in the world of the director Jeremy Saulnier, it’s just another day in America. The film cuts from this carnage to two of its participants drinking wine and collecting themselves afterward, chatting as if they just had a tough day at the office.
Saulnier, who directed the wonderfully nightmarish thrillers Blue Ruin and Green Room, has a vision of America that can be starkly brutal. Blue Ruin is a simple revenge narrative, in which a long-standing grudge erupts into a new cycle of killing, while Green Room follows a pitched struggle between a punk band and a group of neo-Nazis after a concert. Hold the Dark is something different, a tale with a sense of grandeur and mythic scale. Set in the frozen expanses of Alaska, it’s loaded with gorgeous, frightening imagery of a country at its wildest, but there isn’t enough sensible plotting to ground the film in reality.
Based on William Giraldi’s 2014 novel (and written by Saulnier’s frequent collaborator Macon Blair), Hold the Dark is another ostensible story of revenge and death, at least at first. Medora Sloane (played by Riley Keough) is a mother living in a small Alaskan town who lost her son to a pack of wolves. She writes to Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a celebrated author with a professed expertise on the animals, asking for his help. Core, for some reason, takes her up on the request and flies out to the remote village, where he’s greeted by a traumatized, somnambulant Medora. Things quickly take a strange turn as Core realizes the woman is not quite what she seems.
Running parallel to this thread are scenes involving Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier deployed to Afghanistan. After he’s wounded in the line of duty, Vernon returns home. There, he begins to chart his own vengeful path, searching for Medora (who eventually goes missing herself) and, perhaps, the wolf pack that she was initially after. Following the aforementioned confrontation with the cops, a police officer named Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) is drawn into this mess, as is a community of Yup’ik natives with its own mysterious ties to the case. Even if I were willing to spoil the rest of the film’s plot, I’m not sure I could properly unpack all of it.
Hold the Dark begins with an odd enough setup, given that a middle-age author doesn’t seem like the best person to contract as a wolf hunter. The movie then switches to high-octane action, before becoming something truly surreal. There are hints of a deeper, darker connection between Medora and Vernon that would have bizarre implications for their child. Similarly, there are vague allusions to the community’s spiritual relationship with the natural world (particularly with the Arctic wolf packs), but they’re only glancingly explored. Hold the Dark notably includes Yup’ik characters, who are so rarely seen in film, and one major character is played by the Canadian First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope. But they all feel peripheral to a story focused on the Sloane family.
Wright and Badge Dale are talented enough to hold the drama together, for the most part. Blair’s screenplay is so light on plot specifics that their haunted facial expressions are just about the only thing that make sense; their characters are also the only ones in the film that resemble real people. Everyone else seems to exist more as symbols. Vernon disrupts every community he finds, sometimes wearing a wooden tribal mask (for reasons that are never made clear). Keough, an incredible performer who shone in recent films such as American Honey and Logan Lucky, is especially wasted, largely vanishing from the action after the movie’s opening act.
Saulnier’s skill shines during the big showdowns; he can make the most stylized scenes feel grimly realistic. The gun battle in the middle of the movie is his largest-scale set piece yet, and he manages to communicate the complex geography of the standoff very cleanly. There are moments in Hold the Dark, none of them directly related to the plot, that are just as unsettling and searing as the best moments of Blue Ruin and Green Room. Still, the film never coheres outside of those flashes, ultimately delivering a disappointing, confusing, but undeniably fascinating experience.