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Review: HOLD THE DARK (2018)

HOLD THE DARK became available around October 31 on Netflix. This particular offering is not the movie you’d think it was, based on the beautiful visuals presented in the trailer. While the movie does hold an incredible amount of those lovely shots, it lacks a feeling of substance.

The movie takes place in darkest Alaska; full winter in December in a remote village. Director Jeremy Saulnier does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere with his setting and location in this film. Christmas lights twinkle on worn-down houses, the only sentinels holding back the dark in an aptly-named film where the darkness seems to devour everything. The ever-waning sunlight creates the idea that many scenes take place at night, but “day” is a different concept that far north.

An Afghan vet named Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgård, STRAW DOGS, TRUE BLOOD) lives with his despondent wife (Riley Keough, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT). She is currently shaken from the death of her school-age son, who was reportedly eaten by wolves. Slone is away during active duty, in a war blazed all over the screens in HOLD THE DARK, but that seems to have little bearing on the events set at home, apart from setting the stage for our “hero” to return much later.

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Medora Slone enlists the help of writer and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) for some answers about why her son is missing, presumed dead by the majority of the town. Donald Marium (James Badge Dale, THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK, WORLD WAR Z) is the cop assigned to the Slone’s case, and before long we see a strong buddy cop vibe emerge from the two characters. Medora, in her haze of grief, barely seems functional to attend to everyday tasks, let alone look for her lost child. 

From there, the viewer will be constantly questioning the characters’ motives and how strong their relationships are with each other. The timeline for HOLD THE DARK is disjointed and all over the place, one of the many barriers to good storytelling in this film. However, some hasty assumptions on the viewer’s part will note that Vernon Slone has gone to war and returned home to his wife when he learns of his son’s death and a body for the boy is discovered.

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When Slone, whose lust for brutality and killing seems only barely sated by the war he is a soldier in, is introduced in the story while in the Afghan country and called home, we already feel as though we have a measure of a man who would be willing to do almost anything to bring his family back together. But the flashbacks between Slone and his son do little to appease the viewer that Vernon is a warm, friendly family man who wants to spend time with his kid. That may be in favour of Skarsgaard’s performance or not, as Skarsgaard appears to creep menacingly through every scene he’s in, drilling holes in his scene partners with his chilling blue eyes and fearsome, prowling body language. 

In solidarity, Slone’s friends, people of the Yu’pik nation living close to the village, come together to aid him in his quest for violence at seeing his family avenged, but it’s tough to tell if they’re just getting off on violence for violence’s sake. While the bodies hit the ground-It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie with so many dead cops-you begin to get the impression that maybe the Yu’pik people are, unfortunately, very disenfranchised and have their own agenda for killing people, even their own people. Perhaps because they, too, are possessed by the same eerie wolf-god that Skarsgaard is? This twist sadly did not make the general plot any clearer to me.

At this point, it’s tough to tell what kind of movie I’m watching, action, thriller, or horror. The body count (and it is very, very high) stacks up upon Slone’s return to Alaska as he goes looking for answers, or just pure, unadulterated violence for the sake of killing, we’re never sure which. While Skarsgaard’s performance in this is chillingly on point, he rarely makes an impression on me beyond confusion or disgust. While the performances are well-acted and top-notch, and Jeffrey Wright indeed has some acting chops, it wasn’t as fun to watch as I thought it might be.

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Jeffrey Wright and James Badge Dale as buddy-cops are the glue that holds this movie together as we ride to its frustrating and underwhelming denouement. Dale, indeed, does wear a badge, delivering a solid performance as an easygoing cop swept up in a bigger and bloodier mystery than usual. Keough is grossly underutilized in a movie with a name like Jeremy Saulnier’s attached to it. She is a plot hook in the first act of the movie, disappears for most of it, and then makes a brief appearance at the end. Disappointing for someone in a movie like THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT; perhaps Saulnier wanted to take a few Von Trier alumni, like Keough and Skarsgaard, then give them nothing to do?

Some brilliant cinematography in one of the biggest and best firefights that I’ve seen in a movie all year keeps HOLD THE DARK from completely mailing it in and fans of action will be able to get their licks in, with the same utter surprise and delight that I was treated to. Again, I feel that Saulnier is making a statement about the disenfranchisement of the First Nations Yu’pik people, and perhaps about First Nations people in general, especially with the small cameo that Tantoo Cardinal makes. This cannot be understated or ignored, since the violence makes such a complete setpiece for the movie, even if the idea is messy in its execution.

HOLD THE DARK, Saulnier’s follow-up from the well-received GREEN ROOM ultimately falls flat. I was expecting a lot more from a movie that had a few big names like Skarsgaard’s attached to it, but Skarsgaard has been in lighter stuff as well, and perhaps I should learn not to expect anything from a straight to Netflix release. It costs a lot of money to make movies, but I’m still considering it a failing of the storytelling and writing if I can’t follow what was going on. The book was probably better, and I’m curious about how much involvement novelist Giraldi had in creating Macon Blair’s underperforming screenplay. Hopefully, Saulnier’s next will be better.

HOLD THE DARK is available on Netflix.

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