9 October 2018

Hold The Dark review

Any long time readers of ScreenNerds - or even people who I've spoken to about films at any length over the last few years - are probably well aware of the high esteem that I hold filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier in, and I doubt that many people who have seen his previous films (namely Blue Ruin and Green Room) would argue that he hasn't earned it. They're both genuinely brilliant movies, taught and tense and impossibly tight experiences that each leave lasting impressions in very different ways, united by an approach to violence that neither glorifies it nor shys away from just how horrible and damaging it really is. So it was with a great deal of optimism that I sat down to watch Saulnier's latest film, the Netflix produced Hold The Dark - and a great deal of disappointment when I eventually realised that it wouldn't be offering any of the things that made his previous films... well, good, and uniquely, identifiably his.

The plot sees wolf expert Russell Core travelling to a small Alaskan town in order to hunt down a pack of wolves that have been killing local children, but that's really just a kicking off point for what Hold The Dark becomes. The problem? Even having seen it, I'm not really sure exactly what that is, a crime thriller dabbling in a strange, primal mysticism that defies both definition and explanation. Come the credits I was none the wiser about why any of the events of the film happened and what it was all meant to mean - and unfortunately, I'm not particularly bothered about finding out either.

And that's a shame, because it's not like Hold The Dark is entirely without merit. It actually opens relatively strong, the first act offering an atmospheric and mostly engrossing slow burn that draws us in as we're introduced to this story and its characters. It's here that Hold The Dark is easily at its best, utilising long, slow shots of the cold Alaskan wilderness to really make us feel as if we're right there with Russell in this harsh and unforgiving land, which is later contrasted with the hot, dusty deserts of Iraq to great effect. It's good stuff, mysterious and unsettling and imbued with danger, and while it was both a far cry from what I might've expected from Saulnier and a touch predictable (I doubt there are many people who won't see a certain early "twist" coming a mile off), I was still engaged and for the most part on-board.

It's only in the second half that things start going off the rails, slowly to begin with but picking up momentum until Hold The Dark loses all the pull and allure it once held, and a lot of it is down to problems seemingly inherent with the story itself. To be blunt, there comes a point at which the story stops being spurred on by understandable character motivation and starts being driven by a vague and unexplainable... spirituality?, and while that has the potential to be interesting, it can't help but end up feeling deeply unsatisfying when the film gives us so little information with which to work with. Maybe those who have read the book of the same name on which Hold The Dark is based will have an easier time of understanding what exactly was actually happening in the back half of the movie and why - but that's of little help to those who haven't, and as one of those people, I found myself losing interest in Hold The Dark quite quickly and never really regaining it.

It's almost certainly no coincidence that this is the first film that Saulnier has directed without also writing - that particular credit goes to frequent collaborator Macon Blair - but I'd be remiss to put Hold The Dark's failings down to that and that alone. While it is a more ambitious story than those that Saulnier has told in the past, baggy and directionless in a way that neither Blue Ruin or Green Room are, there are other problems innate with the filmmaking that stop even Hold The Dark's better bits from being as effective or exciting as they should've been. Funnily enough, the best example of this comes almost exactly at the point at which Hold The Dark starts to go from engaging to, well, not - there's a big shootout at the midpoint of the movie that simply doesn't land with the same kind of impact that you would expect a Saulnier-directed shootout to land, partly because it ends up having very little bearing on any of the characters we actually care about or how the rest of the film goes down, but mostly because for the first time in his career, it feels like Saulnier over-indulging in his violence, dragging it out for so long that it not only gets a little boring, but even stretches the realms of plausibility somewhat. Usually, violence in Saulnier's films is personal and visceral and quick - here, it's indiscriminate, lacks meaningful consequence and takes far too long, resulting in a scene that while exciting in bursts, can't help but end up feeling like a bit of a waste of time.

And that's Hold The Dark in a nutshell, unfortunately - engaging at times, but overall not really worth the time it takes to watch it, and virtually impossible to recommend to anyone who isn't already very curious about it, Saulnier fans included. Because the sad fact is that if not for the appearance of Macon Blair at one point, I think I'd have had a hard time even identifying Hold The Dark as a Jeremy Saulnier movie - and as a huge fan of both Blue Ruin and Green Room, that's pretty much the last thing I wanted to have to say. Ah well.

2 stars

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