Netflix has really been on quite a tear, trying to establish themselves as a provider of original content far more than a repository of things you’ve already seen. And, it’s been somewhat hit or miss. A lot of the original shows that Netflix has put together have been pretty good, sometimes even great. But the original movies are a lot shakier. There’s been some really good stuff popping up on Netflix, but I feel like the general opinion on the term “Netflix Original Movie” is one of severe apprehension. But, this year they seem dead-set on changing that. They’ve been buying films from film festivals that would normally be picked up by indie distribution companies, throwing their hats not only in the ring of quality movies, but real awards-contenders. We’ll see how it plays out for them, but it is impressive seeing some of the names that they’re managing to draw. Such as the newest film from director Jeremy Saulnier, Hold the Dark. I talked about Saulnier’s second film, Green Room, when it first came out a couple of years ago, and I’ve been highly anticipating his follow-up. I’ve loved both of Saulnier’s first two films, and felt confident that whatever he’d do next would be something I’d be interested in. I was a little disappointed to see that the film would be going straight to Netflix, making it so I couldn’t get to experience it on the big screen, but as luck would have it I live near one of the seven theaters in the entire country where it was screening last weekend, so I went to check it out. And, I don’t know if that factor had a huge effect or not, but I really enjoyed the film.
Hold the Dark revolves around a man named Russel Core, an expert on wolves who receives a letter in 2004 from a woman in Alaska. She says that her husband is away in Iraq, and a pack of wolves have recently attacked and abducted her young son. She wants Core to come to her remote home of Keelut, Alaska to track the wolves who murdered her son, hoping to gain some amount of solace over his death. Core, feeling rather useless, decides to head to Alaska to do anything he can to help. He meets with Medora Slone, the mother of the boy, and she’s immediately strange. She’s grieving for her son, but seems to go out of her way not to tell Core too much about herself, her son, or her husband Vernon. She also walks around naked in a wolf mask at night, but Core still decides to help her out, and heads into the wilderness the next morning to look for the pack of wolves who have already picked off several other children in the town. Core is able to find the wolves, but sees that they’ve resorted to eating their young, something he wouldn’t think they’d do if they’d just eaten a child. So, he returns to Keelut, and finds that Medora has vanished. She’s taken clothes and seemingly has abandoned her home. Core tries to investigate the home, and ends up finding Medora’s son’s corpse in the basement of the home, having never been taken away by wolves, and showing signs that he had been strangled to death.
Core gets in contact with the police, primarily chief Donald Marium, and things get very confusing. The police start looking for Medora, just as her husband Vernon arrives back in town, having been injured in Iraq. And, as soon as he hears what has happened, Vernon snaps. Together with his best friend Cheeon end up killing several police officers, and steal the body of his son. Vernon buries his son, and heads out to find Medora on his own, leaving a swath of destruction in his wake. This obviously becomes a huge deal for the police, and Core finds himself being dragged along the whole time, as Marium and a veritable army of police officers arrive at the home of Cheeon, whose daughter actually was killed by wolves. And Cheeon is not pleased with the white people who have done nothing but make his life harder, causing him to set up a massive machine-gun in his house, instigating a massive shoot-out with the police. A massive amount of officers die in the process, and Marium makes it his sole mission in life to find the Slones. Luckily, Core remembers Medora telling him about a hidden hot-spring that she likes to go to, and thinks that that may be where she’s headed. Unfortunately, Vernon has also remembered that hot-spring, and is heading there as well, complete with his own wolf-mask, having gone full super-villain. They all arrive at the same time, and Vernon ends up killing Marium and wounding Core. He then seems to reconcile with Medora, and the two head out into the wilderness together, leaving behind all the murder they’ve caused. Core is then able to get back to civilization, and decides to reconcile with his daughter, not taking life for granted anymore.
Hold the Dark is a very challenging film. I see a lot of people reacting pretty poorly to it, finding it too bleak, too obtuse, and just generally lacking that flair that Jeremy Saulnier has fostered in his previous two films. And, while I can see the source of these complaints, and while I do think that this is probably my least favorite of Saulnier’s three films, I still found myself getting really caught up by the film. And, weirdly enough, I think that a major factor in that may be that I got to see it in a theater. Not knocking Netflix, but I’ve almost always found that movies being viewed on the big-screen play better than on televisions. I didn’t watch the film twice, so I have no idea if it really does feel different on a TV, but I was still completely caught up in Saulnier’s world, his trademark mastery of suspense and tension drawing me along, and possibly making it easier to skip over some of the weaker elements of the film. It’s incredibly nebulous, and the film ended up taking out a lot of explicit plot-elements from the novel that the film is adapted from, making things a little confusing. I certainly picked up from context clues that Medora and Vernon were siblings, and that their whole relationship was twisted, but the movie doesn’t ever explicitly state that. Really, very little is explicitly stated. It’s a very quite film, focusing primarily on the absolutely stunning performance from Jeffrey Wright, an actor who I’ve always really appreciated, and who is in rare form in this film. All the performances in the film were great, the photography of Alaska was beautifully bleak, and that shoot-out was legitimately one of the tensest things I’ve seen in theaters this year. But, all of that does get held back a bit by the film’s strange attempts to be something it really isn’t.
Not every movie needs to “be about” something. I typically go out of my way to find some universal truth or basic element that the movies I talks about feature, but those features are often probably not specifically baked into the film. I doubt that many film-makers set out to make films about some nebulous aspect of the human condition, it just kind of happens, since they’re humans. And I think that one of the flaws of this film, and one of the things that has been turning so many people away from it, was the idea that it was trying to be too much. The film was trying to make statements about the struggle between white people and Inuit natives, about parenthood, and about the effects of war. All of which aren’t really given the time to flourish, becoming strange side-tracks that don’t really pay off in any substantive way. Which is strange, because in my opinion, this film ended up tackling something far more interesting, and the film never seemed particularly interested in it. Because this entire movie seems to be looking at the vague idea of humanity. We get to see the harsh truth that we all try to push out of our minds on full display in this film. That we’re all just animals. By comparing the Slone’s with the wolf-pack that Core comes across you end up leaving the film trying to figure out what really separates us from animals. We see the Sloan’s engage in a socially unnatural relationship, have a child, kill the child, and then kill a bunch of people for seemingly no reason. They’ve both dropped the preconceived notions of morality, humanity, and the social contract and become pure animals, reacting completely on impulse and desire. And the way that literally every other character in the film reacts to them is fascinating. They’re horrified, but fascinated. Horrified that they’ve broken so many morays, and fascinated that it was apparently so easy. We could all just drop out humanity and become the animals we really are, and it’s just a miracle that we don’t.
Hold the Dark was written by Macon Blair, directed by Jeremy Saulnier, and released by Netflix, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk