After establishing himself as one of the most promising talents to surface in the film industry in recent years with two back-to-back cinematic gems, Jeremy Saulnier hits a snag with his fourth feature film and delivers his first dud with a thriller that begins on a propitious note but becomes lost in the wilderness as plot progresses.
The story of Hold the Dark unfolds in a small village in the Alaskan wilderness and follows a writer who’s summoned there by a young woman to hunt & kill the wolves that took her son, only to find himself in the middle of a vengeful rampage that’s set into motion when the father of the boy returns home from war and seeks his own justice.
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier (best known for Blue Ruin & Green Room), Hold the Dark is the first film he didn’t write on his own and while the story started well, creating the required intrigue & mystery, it all fades away as the muddled plot goes a tad too awry. The viewers are given nothing to latch on to and the film wanders with no sense of direction.
Though the story teases with a feral angle, the mystery remains a mystery till the end, thus leaving behind more questions than answers. The threads are left loose, and not enough material is provided to connect the dots. Whatever Saulnier was aiming for, he falls short by a considerable margin. Add to that, the characters aren’t fleshed enough to make us care.
The only thing working in the film’s favour is its dark atmosphere. Reeking of death & dread, the aura is that of an omen and it is well sustained from start to finish. The additional flair comes from the smart camerawork, for the images are crisp, clear & sharply detailed, making terrific use of lighting & shadows while the remote location & grim score bring an uneasy feeling of their own into the mix.
Yet all of that amounts to nothing in the end as the premise is convoluted, confusing & confounding. And the longer it goes on, the more ridiculous it becomes. Speaking of its length, its 125 minutes runtime feels twice as long due to Saulnier’s slow-burn approach and that conclusion is bound to leave many viewers baffled, frustrated & unsatisfied. There are so many scenes that just don’t add up and it’s all emotionally distant.
There is one shootout sequence that’s going to stand out for most. But even that segment surfaces out of nowhere and only ends up overstaying its welcome. The violence the film has in store is brutal & unflinching just like the director’s previous features yet they don’t leave much of an impact. Performances range from good to garbage, and in a cast starring Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård & Riley Keough, it’s James Badge Dale who shines. Macon Blair makes a cameo as well and it’s awful.
On an overall scale, Hold the Dark is a slow, meandering, overlong, blank & boring mess, and is undeniably Jeremy Saulnier’s weakest film to date. The film’s bleak & unforgiving ambience is a plus but the story barely makes sense and is stuffed with scenes it could have done without. The fact that Netflix picked it up is a blessing in disguise, for this thriller is shoddily scripted & poorly executed throughout. Bringing Saulnier’s creative momentum to a sudden halt, Hold the Dark is a rare misfire from the talented storyteller that may require another viewing or two for a final verdict but for now, it is an absolute disappointment.