Hold the Dark

I know places like Keelut, the fictional village of Hold the Dark, buried in the cold northern mountains of Alaska. I lived in one, as a child. In a much more southern part of Alaska, sure, and definitely bigger and closer to civilization. But when we traveled the massive state, I’d see little villages, if you could even call them that. Huts. Small structures, huddled against the dark and the cold winter nights. Even the “bigger towns” of Alaska felt like they were chiseled from nature. You’d drive down the highways and streets connecting civilization, and houses would seemingly spill out of the woods and mountains. It was an odd dichotomy of feeling “of nature” and “against it.”

In the small towns and villages peppering Alaska, things that you and I probably take for granted are dozens of minutes if not hours away, through mountains and snow and the cold. Communities must huddle together and oftentimes fend for themselves. I recall a terrifying moment where I had a terrible asthma attack that precipitated a twenty or thirty minute rush to a hospital miles away in Anchorage. And that was in the southern parts of Alaska.

Facts are Facts

Writer: Macon Blair
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Gayly: bleak and bold storytelling
Dreadful: almost a little too subtle
Pairs With: Wind River
Availability: Netflix

Elsewhere, strange communities pop up where they can. Places where the inhabitants make due with whatever they have available to them. Think about Whittier, Alaska, where the town predominantly lives in a old Army barracks. It’s completely isolated, accessible through one long tunnel or by air or sea. If something happens there, chances are you are on your own, relying on your neighbors.

It’s in this isolated hamlet of Keelut that writer and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is called to, after three children have been killed by wolves. Medora Slone (Riley Keough) sends for him, after her six-year-old boy goes missing. Her husband, Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgård) is currently away with the military, killing people dispassionately (and dispensing his own kind of justice, in the process) in Iraq.

When Core arrives in Keelut, he meets Medora who has a gaunt and haunted look to her. She is surprised he came. I think Core is surprised as well, even though he has another motive propelling him in his daughter, who lives in Anchorage.

After a weird encounter at night where Medora slinks, naked, into Core’s arms and tries to get him to choke her, he goes out in search of the wolves who might be terrorizing the village. Things happen, Vernon returns from the war on a bloody warpath and Core finds himself hunting a much different kind of wolf, with unknowable intentions.

That’s about all I want to say about the plot. The early inciting incident that propels the rest of the plot isn’t really a spoiler, since it happens so early and is the impetus for the story, but I’ll let you discover what’s really going on in this depressing and coldly dispassionate story. Hold the Dark is based on the novel of the same name by William Giraldi. The novel shocked me, when I first read it, as it piled mythology and lore and years of misery onto a very small and human story. Giraldi nailed the feel of Alaska and I was happy to see that filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) follows suit. You can feel the cold and darkness eek from the screen.

Unlike the frantic and immediate pace of Green Room, Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair hold us at arms length here. A couple sequences rival the tense standoffs in Green Room, but the film has a more slow burn, deliberate pace. Moments of violence explode from the screen with cringe-worthy effects. The standout is a shootout that just decimates everyone involved. The carnage on display perfectly captured the devastation and heartbreak Giraldi brought out in the novel.

Blair and Saulnier give most of their characters time to breathe and live, which makes the events in the last half so much more devastating. Unfortunately, not all characters are given their due. Riley Keough isn’t given much to work with, with Medora. She imbues her character with a wispy wistfulness, but she comes across as one note where, in the novel, her motivations and her life are more fully explored. Same thing with Vernon’s best friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), whose relationship with Vernon, in the novel at least, has a lived in quality that belies the machismo bravado of the masculinity on display. Vernon is allowed to be emotional here and Cheeon stands by him until the end, but there’s a bit more nuance to their relationship that I wish the film had explored.

The most interesting and, yes, sometimes frustrating thing about Hold the Dark is how much is going on under the surface. I’m never beholden to the books movies are based on; The Shining is as equally great as a movie as it is a novel, for completely different reasons. But there are moments made explicit in Giraldi’s work that lie so far under the surface of Hold the Dark that I think people will miss them. It’s a work that I think requires at least a second viewing, as there are very subtle clues about the relationships between the characters and the connection to the overall mythology. Truthfully, I do appreciate the more surreal and subdued approach to the story because the movie could have easily descended into melodrama, but I think some viewers will be left incredibly perplexed about what they just watched.

Ultimately, Hold the Dark is a story about tribalism and how we isolate ourselves not only from outsiders but from each other. It’s a microcosm, represented by a dozen or so small huts, standing unwavering against the cold, about what’s going on in society today. Keelut may be a fictional town, but the name is based on real Inuit mythology. A Keelut is an evil spirit who feasts on the dead and is often seen as a harbinger of death. There’s a moment in the story, where an old woman explains how the wolves always come. Once, the “wolves” that came to Keelut was the flu. Now, it’s something completely different. But the wolves do come; a circuitous cycle of violence that threatens to swallow everything in the cold darkness of a never-ending night.

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