“I’m not talking about animals here, Mr. Core. I’m talking about people.” The lead police officer in the snowy Arctic town that Hold the Dark is set in tells this to the film’s protagonist, writer and wolf expert Russell Core, after the story’s first big twist.
Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, mumbles “If you say so.” as a non-committal response. It is this attitude – that the boundaries between human and animal are slimmer than we think – that forms the core of the film’s nihilist ethos. Featuring the brutal violence and hopelessness of director Jeremy Saulnier’s previous films, Green Room and Blue Ruin, Hold the Dark is a film where characters commit acts of horrific cruelty for seemingly no reason other than their own animalistic nature. The longer the film goes on, the more you realize it’s not a thesis, it’s an excuse.
At the beginning of the film, Core receives a letter for help from Medora Slone, a young woman living in a small Arctic village whose son was taken by wolves. When Core arrives, Slone, played by Riley Keough, immediately seems off, speaking in an a monotone voice, saying odd things and sharing uncomfortable moments of intimacy with the complete stranger staying at her house. Core brushes it off as the effects of grief and ventures into the wilderness to search for the remains of the boy. Thus begins a typical story of man vs. nature, as he fights the elements and the wild pack of wolves terrorizing the innocent villagers.
Or not. To go any further in the story would be to spoil crucial plot elements, involving the return of Medora’s husband, Vernon (played by Alexander Skarsgård) from a war in the Middle East, as well as an ever-increasing body count. But the story instead twists into a cat-and-mouse game involving alternating the perspective between Core and Vernon. Jeffrey Wright and Skarsgård, usually supporting cast members or character actors, are given the opportunity to share the spotlight, playing reserved and quiet men with hidden iron wills, albeit with different moral compasses altogether. Saulnier’s direction also shows new facets here, evolving from the dark and claustrophobic hallways of Green Room to the wide, desolate settings of the Arctic, yet still finding new ways to film scenes of shocking violence, with the standout being a shootout in the snow where every bullet feels an impact.
As the film goes on, an intriguing mystery begins to present itself. Why are certain characters doing this? What is the motivation behind the actions driving the plot? As the film goes on, the desire to have these questions answered grows more intense, until two hours in when the film’s climax occurs. At that point, after constant simmering tension, the realization began to dawn on me that there was no way the film could answer all the questions it presented in the amount of time it had left. As the story approached what felt like an ending, an even more disappointing notion arised: “Is this…is this it? Is this really the answer they’re going with?” At that point, everything up to that point, all the tension that I thought the film was building to one final, shocking reveal, turned out to be utterly meaningless. It feels like something that was intentionally, as a demonstration of the film’s central question: What differentiates humans from animals? Not much, if what the ending attempts to say can be believed, but that ends up being more than a narrative crutch for flimsy character writing than a message that feels in any way meaningful.
Hold the Dark is like a bad relationship. You get to know her, you think she’s interesting, and right as you’re ready to take the plunge and commit, you find out that you were expecting completely different things from each other. I was expecting a violent mystery that would continuously unravel and grow more and more shocking as each answer was revealed, something akin to 2013’s Prisoners. For a while, that’s what I was getting, and I thought that’s what the movie wanted me to get too. It was only later that I realized it actually wanted me to think about what the difference between humans and wolves is. Even if the answer to that question wasn’t extremely obvious to anyone who has any knowledge of what humans and wolves are, I wish that it had told me that two hours sooner.