"Hold The Dark" Excerpt
Adam: I don't think either of us would be so foolish as to characterize Jeremy Saulnier's two previous films, 2014's "Blue Ruin" and 2016's "Green Room," as simple or lacking in nuance and complexity – uninterested in probing the often unseemly depths of the human experience. But compared to his latest "Hold The Dark," based on William Giraldi's 2014 book, both are undeniably pretty straightforward. The former, a character-driven revenge thriller. The latter, a grisly tale of survival. The distinction is somewhat ironic because "Hold The Dark" is on paper and in parts both a character-driven revenge thriller and [a] grisly tale of survival, this time set against the isolated, apparently endless, Alaskan wilderness, instead of a confined nightclub overrun by skinheads. There are hints – and maybe more than hints – of the supernatural, not to mention plenty of unnatural acts that defy explanation in "Hold The Dark," which sees Jeffrey Wright's Russell Core summoned by a mother, played by Riley Keough, who is grieving the killing of her young son by wolves and wants them hunted down. Ambiguous would seem to be an appropriate descriptor but it's a word for me that carries with it, almost exclusively, a positive connotation. Who doesn't want art to contain multiple possible meanings and interpretations? Who doesn't want art to provoke hours of rumination on those meanings and interpretations? But what about art that is just plain vague or confounding – perhaps even pretentious in how it occasionally flirts with larger profundities without the actual provocation? If not forced to consider it for this show, Josh, how long would "Hold The Dark" have loomed in your consciousness? Is there indeed some profundity in the mysteries of Saulnier's Alaska? Or am I overstating the filmmakers elusive ambition altogether?
Josh: No, it actually stuck with me. It was a more interesting experience to me in the aftermath, in a lot of ways, which I think I mostly mean as a compliment. And you're dead on, in referencing ambiguity here. Just trying to describe this movie in my written review, I said, "It's a werewolf movie that isn't a werewolf movie but really kind of is." I-I still can't even make up my own mind. Maybe we'll do a little bit of spoiler-[talk] at the very end of this, where we can share how we come down on that particular question. I think you're on to something though in that the ambiguity is both a strength and a weakness of this film in different degrees. For me, the weakness part might be that there are a few narrative gaps here, I would say, – some frustratingly open questions that the narrative seems to want you to know the answer to, but doesn't provide, which to me is a little different than letting us fill in the blanks ourselves. You know, what it sort of felt like to me in the aftermath was almost like a limited run Netflix series that had been squished into a feature film. I could have really seen standalone episodes with a certain character that filled in some of the stuff that maybe we wanted to know and let the story breathe – and made this world a little bit more whole, a little bit more cohesive. That would've been more rewarding.
Adam: Yeah, I think the material is rich enough if you consider supporting characters like James Badge Dale's sheriff and also Cheeon, who is a friend and someone else who has been a victim of a wolf attack on his family. They're fascinating characters.
Josh: There you go! And both could have easily sustained an episode. And here you get just enough of them to want more, and also just teases as to how they do fit into this larger narrative. Now, the larger narrative itself I was drawn into and fascinated by. This central question of what is going on in this remote village – what do we make of it, given what we know about survival movies, which have a realistic tendency, but also more supernatural... Part of the fun for me was, like, "Where is this thing falling, genre-wise?" Not that I needed a specific answer on that. That's the ambiguity that I enjoyed, the way Saulnier was using the elements from the novel to keep us always guessing what-in-the-world-kind of movie are we watching. That I did enjoy.
Adam: Not only keeping us guessing, as far as what kind of movie we're watching, but what's going to happen moment to moment. I think that's one of the thrills in all of Saulnier's films – that really everything is up for grabs, scene by scene. And just when you think you are dialed in to what kind of film it is, or what kind of characters these are, it jars you and goes in a completely different direction. I immediately settled into this film thinking it was going to be a movie about Jeffrey Wright's character coming to terms with his own family dysfunction [and] some of a loss that he's experienced. But it was going to be kind of like "The Grey." It was gonna be a movie where he's out in the wilderness, wrestling with his demons, and possibly wrestling with wolves, and within 20 minutes or so, we discover this is really going to be a different kind of movie. I think we also recognize it's a different kind of movie just in terms of its craft. For those of us who have seen these two previous films, that visual artistry isn't really a surprise. The cinematography here is spectacular.
Josh: Oh, it's gorgeous.
Adam: I'm probably gonna butcher the name, Magnus Nordedhof Jønck [pronounced Yonk]?
Josh: I was going to go on "Yonk.".
Adam: Or is it "Jonk?"
Josh: Let's say "Yonk.".
Adam: OK. He also did the camera work for "Lean on Pete," from earlier this year, another movie that we thought was gorgeous. And the compositions here of these Alaskan mountains and the landscapes – of the wolves themselves – there are isolated shots throughout this film that really take your breath away. And just in terms of the storytelling too. This is where the editing obviously comes into play as well. But I think about the very beginning of this film where we see a shot of the young boy, the son, he's playing with a soldier in some ice. And he then looks up and sees the Wolf and we get to the wolf looking back at him and then the next shot is a door being locked, which has some significance we find out later, and we see Riley Keough as the mother – Medora is her name – walking over to make some tea or coffee, and then she goes over to the door and opens it up and just looks at that block of ice where her son was. Just in that one cut, we have transported ahead in time – we come to learn it's only been a few days – but she looks out at that ice and we see the soldier still stuck in it, the ice in the foreground with the soldier, and the mom in the background. We know everything we need to know – or think we need to know – about what happened to that boy just in those few cuts and those shots. Actually I think my single favorite shot in the movie is that one of the camera slowly tracking behind her as she opens the door. It's a very "Searchers"-esque doorway moment, whether deliberately or not. But all we see is that total engulfing blackness. And then when she opens the door, That vertical swath of light from it, and then in front of her, in the background of that shot – all that grandeur and that kind of menacing isolation in the distance. Really that shot, I think Josh in a lot of ways, is a visual metaphor for the entire movie. It's called "Hold The Dark." It's called that very much for a reason. We might be able to get into some of the aspects of just how literal that can be taken, but that little sliver of light against that encompassing darkness and that battle that's going on – and the battle that the light is losing – is really at the core of this entire film.