Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.
One of my most anticipated films of 2018 was Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi’s novel, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to tell you that it’s not very good. Saulnier’s previous work, Blue Ruin and the thriller masterwork Green Room — both of which starred Macon Blair, his writer on this project — had a tight plots and excellent resolutions, neither of which this film possesses, and it’s astonishing just how much he mistakes an intermittent weak flame for a slow burn. It’s fitting, in a way, that this is a Netflix release, because, like almost all of their films, this is a movie that even the most committed of viewers will struggle not to check Twitter during if they watch this on the couch.
The film begins with the “kidnapping” of a child by a pack of wolves in a small village in the heart of Alaska. His mother, Medora (Riley Keough), not knowing what to do, writes to Russell Core (Jeffery Wright), an expert on wolves who once lived with a pack for a year, and begs him to come up from the Lower 48 to hunt the animal that murdered her son. He lives a solitary life, with a collection of wolf paintings covering nearly every frame of his house, and decides to help the woman. There are a few reasons for this, but chiefly he’s hoping to see his daughter, who lives in Anchorage, while he’s up there.
Medora’s an odd duck, who speaks to him in riddles and questions him about what it’s like to kill a wolf, but he continues along with the hunt, even despite the warnings of a local witch as he’s leaving the village. He gets a feeling while on the trail that the wolves aren’t responsible for what happened to the boy, and soon enough, that feeling is confirmed. On the other side of the world, Medora’s unhinged husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) is wounded on a routine mission in Afghanistan, and is sent home, which places the two men at the center of the story on a collision course.
It works well enough as a mood piece for the first half, as Saulnier has always had a strong command of tone, and Wright’s is an underrated when he’s understated. When he goes after the wolves in the first place, he watches them “savage” a young pup from the pack, and the look on his eyes tells you all you need to know. Keough also manages to do her best with Blair’s stilted dialogue — there’s weird and then there’s trying to be weird, and this film finds itself often on the wrong side of that divide — and sells a couple of creepy early scenes that command attention. Strong supporting roles go to James Badge Dale (the MVP of bad movies at this fest) and Blair, as well. But then Skarsgard comes home from the war, adopts a wooden wolf mask, and starts killing his way across the wilderness, and it’s there that the film devolves into something like the kind of particularly oblique Canadian slasher you’d find on the lowest shelf of your Mom and Pop video store back in ‘95.
That lack of clarity is almost entirely what sinks the film. Saulnier feeds you the most basic of details about the film’s central plot and its specific relationship to the landscape, and asks you, like Wright, to divine the meaning of all the hints he’s laid out for you: Is it supernatural? Is it just a case of husband and wife gone mad? Is it incest? Perhaps these questions might have meant something if the movie had a clearer ending, but the director commits so heavily to ambiguity that the entire climax feels like a shrug, and we feel like rubes for watching it and playing along. Even worse is that the film’s half-hearted attempt to at least wrap up one character’s emotional arc rings false, simply because we never got the chance to know that person as well as we should have.
One has to wonder that if the problem lies within the act of adaptation itself: There’s no way that we can get to know Wright as well as we could if we’re mainlining his thoughts and experiences, and that extra clarifying detail about the setting and its inhabitants might alleviate some of my issues with this adaptation. Other things are a little more nebulous: Are Skarsgard and Keough supposed to be playing Native Americans? If so, yikes. And what happened to Saulnier’s command of tension? Outside of one crazy, splatter-filled gunfight between a group of police officers and a dude with a mounted machine gun, the shock and awe just isn’t there. I can also understand wanting to work on a more meditative project after something like Green Room, but it seems Hold the Dark might have put him to sleep instead.
What a disappointment.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.