Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writers: Macon Blair, William Giraldi (based on the book by)
Starring: Jeffery Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, James Badge Dale
Netflix's new Alaskan-based crime thriller looks and feels great, but it holds on to far more than just the dark.
This September, Netflix added Hold the Dark to its seemingly endless catalogue, a new thriller set in the bleak Alaskan winter, based on the book of the same name by William Giraldi. As we begin, a young mother calls upon the help of an ageing writer after her son is taken and killed by wolves in the snowy wilderness. It certainly is a grim synopsis but one which Hold The Dark perfectly complements with a sombre and unsettling atmosphere which is maintained without fault from the opening scene until the end. This film's ability to make you feel uneasy is superb, enveloping the viewer a murky, tense thriller set within an oppressive and inescapable greyness. Unfortunately, 'beauty' is only skin deep, and Hold the Dark struggles to deliver anything of substance - or, indeed, sense.
Cryptic backstories and mysterious half-formed plot-lines are often found within the make-up of successful thrillers. Viewers enjoy the confusion, and the excitement of putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Hold the Dark, however, has taken this concept way too far. It provides far too little information, giving the audience only half the pieces, with vital aspects being either left out completely or presenting themselves in the form of unhelpfully obscure 'clues'. The film appears to be made up of all exciting parts from the novel, but the pieces which connect them together into a coherent narrative have been left behind. As a result, we are presented with a clunky, disjointed story which fails to be relatable or accessible and, to some degree, understandable. Throughout the film, we are subjected to some incredibly shocking events - tremendously exciting and bizarre acts which punch through the eerie but settled ambience which defines the main body of the film. Some are truly shocking, the majority are violent and they all in and of themselves interesting pieces of film. Sadly, when viewed as a whole, they are largely superficial, and herein lies Hold the Dark's main issue, one which is only realised as the credits begin to roll and you notice that none of it made sense.
Our main cast suffers from this same issue and so, despite their talent, struggle to achieve anything of great measure with their characters. Jeffery Wright’s Russell Core, the writer hired to hunt down the killer wolf, has great potential. We are given impelling snippets of a cryptic backstory which makes a good start of fleshing a complex character with a complicated past. Unfortunately, the dots we are supplied with are too few and so cannot be joined into any comprehensible picture. Wright does a brilliant job considering how neglected his character's construction is, being naturally likeable and a source of warmth in an otherwise cold film.
Meanwhile, Skarsgård is truly wasted as Vernon Slone, a character which could have simply dazzled in a different context. He possesses a frightening coldness, which brings a horrible sensation of unease to every scene he is in. In another setting, such as a slasher-pursuit or a moody urban crime-thriller, this character would do incredibly well - but within this story he feels completely out of context. This is mainly due to the incoherent narrative, within which Slone appears to commit extreme acts of violence with little to no explanation of why he would commit such acts. No motive is established by the film's end, leaving behind only one possible explanation, but one which is simply not believable. Riley Keough does well as the disturbed Medora Slone, almost single-handedly cultivating the desperately creepy tone during the film's opening 30 minutes - but again, her character suffers from a lack of explanation. Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), our courageous but out-of-his-depth police officer stands out as perhaps the most straightforward, and therefore likeable, character in the film.
Hold the Dark likely wants to be an exploration of human behaviour in extreme circumstances, but is more likely to summon confusion rather than reflection. A more sensible use of the source material would have given this film a centre which can match the surface, but its poorly constructed plot-lines and characters do not provide the pay-off which its viewers deserve.
In one line: Hold the Dark is a murky thriller which looks good on the surface but conceals a poorly structured core which is unbelievable and inaccessible.