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Music is often a vital part of the cinematic experience. The bombastic opening scroll of Star Wars. The throbbing drone of Drive’s synths. The complete lack of any music in mother! Music and film have a unique kinship and it’s easily seen in the films of Jeremy Saulnier. The impending Americana of Blue Ruin. The blistering horror punk of Green Room. With his latest film Hold the Dark,, Saulnier conjures up the icy yet scorching mood and tone of black metal.
Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright in a rare but welcome lead role) is a retired wolf expert who is hired by Medora Sloane (Riley Keough) a grieving mother who says her son was taken by wolves. She wants the wolves found and killed before her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) returns home from the Iraq War. As Russell digs deeper into the mystery surrounding Medora and her isolated Alaskan village all is not as it seems.
Hold the Dark aims for a kind of northern mysticism that’s been popularised recently in the likes of The Terror and Ritual. The problem is the Inuit mythology upon which it’s based stands on shaky narrative ground. It’s never properly explained why Vernon and Medora act the way they do and when the script – by Saulnier’s best friend Macon Blair – tries to explain it does so vaguely. Hold the Dark is a decent snowy thriller wrapped up in themes that don’t quite fit luckily Saulnier’s direction provides support where the writing cannot.
Saulnier’s gone from making no-budget horror movies to becoming the go-to guy for muscular, shred the nerves thrillers. His direction from the quiet, wishy-washy dialogue scenes to the film’s visceral gunfight centrepiece masks Blair’s unfortunate enthusiasm for talk about wolves, curses and the nature of evil. As much as it tries, Hold the Dark is not the intimate dissection of human nature it so clearly wants to be. What Saulnier often did with one line in Blue Ruin, Blair fails to do with a whole script here. Still Skarsgård, Wright and James Badge Dale – as a local police chief – deliver convincing performances even as the lines they utter so seriously and quietly do their best to trip the actors up.
The Arctic pine forest setting of Hold the Dark does wonders for the atmosphere of slow dread and bloody violence the film’s better scenes often capture. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s camerawork picks up on the hopelessness that seems built into each of the main characters and it’s in the film’s visuals that is reflected the black metal ethos of nihilism, nature and the dark side of man. What the film lacks in strength of story it makes up for with the grim-dark tone of its world.
Hold the Dark is set in 2004 the peak of the Iraq War and the beginning of what seems to be our generation’s Forever War. Russell is told near the start of the film that the sun rises in Alaska at 10 in the morning and sets at 3:30 in the afternoon. The dark holds on in Alaska, it holds onto the film’s characters and as the credits – accompanied by cheery Christmas music – roll the dark will likely hold onto the film’s viewers as well.