Some filmmakers want to make you meditate, to make movies that comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable and all of that. Jeremy Saulnier just wants to kick your ass. That’s my takeaway from his last three films, anyway — Blue Ruin, Green Room, and now his latest, Hold The Dark, starring Jeffrey Wright, which once again had me gasping for air and muttering “Jesus Christ” throughout the screening.
Saulnier’s movies thump in a way that few movies do these days. If Hold The Dark is clearly recognizable as a Saulnier jam, there’s an obvious evolution from Blue Ruin to here. Ruin, released in 2013, was kind of a scruffy indie, starring Saulnier’s friend Macon Blair, which proved that you can still have white-knuckle action and visceral thrills in a scruffy indie. 2015’s Green Room, about a punk band held hostage by neo-Nazis, was a step up in sophistication, adding a few famous actors to the mix, like Imogen Poots and Patrick Stewart, but still with fairly modest ambitions, condensing the action into a few key sets.
Hold The Dark, which was financed by and set to be released on Netflix, sees Saulnier much less obviously constrained by the kinds of commercial limitations that shaped Blue Ruin and to some extent Green Room. This one has plane shots and wide vistas and actors we love from prestige cable! It feels like Saulnier has completed the transition from hobbyist to pro.
Adapted from William Giraldi’s book (by Macon Blair, who directed his own Netflix movie earlier this year), Hold the Dark stars Jeffrey Wright as Russell Core, a writer and wolf expert, author of “A Year Among Them,” who comes to rural Alaska at the behest of a grieving mother (Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough) whose son has apparently been taken by wolves. Only Slone, whose husband Vern (Alexander Skarsgard) is away in Iraq, seems disturbed. She wears a mask, says spooky things, and her Native American neighbors in the remote village where she lives think she might be possessed. Keough, who was so good as the sociopathic magazine magnate in American Honey, holds it down once again here, proving herself a rare talent that I have to imagine the mainstream will eventually take note of.
The world of Hold the Dark is unpredictable and dangerous, whether it’s on patrol in Iraq or just walking around an Alaskan village, with characters just as likely to get shot in the neck or stabbed in the skull in either. You never know what’s going to happen in a Saulnier movie, which makes the film feel white-knuckle tense even as it’s simultaneously an atmospheric slow burn. Neither has a bigger budget changed Saulnier’s most essential quality as a filmmaker: he directs action like horror. It’s artful, but not playful. It’s spare and straightforward and beautiful, with an ultimate simplicity of purpose: he is going to fuck you up.
Unlike his previous movies, there’s a supernatural element to Hold The Dark. It’s essentially a Southern Gothic set in Alaska, kind of like if Harry Crews had written Wind River. Unlike his other films, which are essentially thrillers, there’s something inscrutable at the center of Hold The Dark. It pits the outsiders — Wright’s Russell Core and a police chief played by James Badge Dale — against the villagers, Keough, Skarsgard, and Vern’s Native American pal, Cheeon, played memorably by Julian Black Antelope. Those bound to the land all carry within them something wild, and inherently unknowable. That makes it all the more thrilling and terrifying, but it also means Hold The Dark lacks the kind of simple resolution that characterized Saulnier’s previous films.
It’s not the kind of film you watch waiting for “the answer.” Saulnier isn’t going to solve the equation for you in Hold The Dark. But he is going to kick your ass.
Hold The Dark premieres this week on Netflix.