Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Based on: Hold the Dark by William Giraldi
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Malcolm Blair, Tantoo Cardinal, Julian Black Antelope. USA. 2h 5m
With just two major titles under his belt, Saulnier’s next project, was so highly anticipated it derailed the hype train, but the resulting ambitious drama was so different from the taut thrillers, Blue Ruin (2013) and Green Room (2015) that no one could really appreciate it in the same way and it generally got panned by the fans.
This misfire isn’t a total disaster, no one can find fault with the beautiful crafting that went into the film, Saulnier is so masterful that even if you didn’t get the movie you can easily enjoy watching it, but for me it’s just a perfect shot for a different audience. I found it just as gritty and nearly as bloody as the others, but the pushing and pulling between two fundamental ideas within the movie that would either make it a thriller or fantasy doesn’t ever come to a neat conclusion, leaving a gaping open ending which is going to piss off a lot of people but for me it’s a highly alluring project which is perfect as it is.
This grim and unsettling movie sees a retired naturalist and wolf expert Russell Core (Wright) attempt to help a grieving mother Medora Slone (Keough) whose children were attacked and killed by a group of rogue wolves, while Russell gets settled and starts his investigations her behaviour is more worrying than that of the local fauna but the two strike up a bond which just beginning to leap over the edge of friendship into something more dangerous when Russell makes a unbelievable discovery Medora vanishes, soon after her husband Vernon (Skarsgård) returns from the Iraq war and after learning about the deaths of his children he sparks off a chain of violent events but with the diligent officer Donald Marium (Dale) on the case while Russell attempts to piece together the puzzle of the wolves and local folklore surrounding the unforgiving events.
I have to admit that I was so caught up in the idea that werewolves might be involved in this stunning movie, Saulnier and Blaire manage to conjure up an atmosphere that in this town on the edge of the wilderness in Alaska anything can happen and life is fragile, if the wolves don’t get you then maybe forest spirits as you lose your mind due to the lack of sunlight. In between the dimly lit landscapes as Russell tackles the wildlife then stumbles on a much more involved plot, the film on occasions explodes into stunning violence, particularly an extended shoot-out sequence with local police, when native Cheeon loses his shit and starts to take out as many cops as he can, but the bloodshed doesn’t stop there as the maniacal Vernon starts to track down his missing wife and together with his tribal wolf mask he starts a journey down memory lane occasionally slaughtering as he goes.
It’s incredibly brave of Saulnier to try something so different after he captured such a unique fan base, but while a lot of people were there for some of the same as before and were disappointed I think he’s captured a few more dedicated fans who have come to realise that he’s versatile and exploring his artistic licence in this prime artic noir adventure that left a few confused but is ultimately fascinating.
It isn’t Blue Ruin or Green Room, but it’s a bloody brilliant piece of cinema, seeing some interesting work from leading stars, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, everyone else seemed a little frozen by the snow, but would it have felt like such a slog if there was a clear reason for all the violence in the end? The primal nature of the killing is indeed nature in action which often doesn’t have a clear reason, sometimes we just have to look at play for play and conclude things ourselves, it won’t scare those in the cinema, but for the meditative few around the campfire, deeper more profound meanings will be discovered in the coldness of a wonderful story, which makes me wonder if there’s more being missed in Saulnier’s earlier movies?