In the remote town of Keelut, Alaska, children are being taken. Not by humans, but by wolves. Two Yupik youngsters have already gone missing. And now, it seems, a little White boy has as well. As such, his mother, Riley Keough, summons Jeffrey Wright, an expert on the animals, to come and find the pack that killed her son. When Wright gets there, however, he finds that all is not as it seems to be. For starters, Keough seems slightly crazy. (In one scene, she climbs into bed with him, and tries to get him to strangle her). And when Wright looks in the basement, he finds that wolves didn’t eat the boy. Keough, his own mother, killed him. This revelation, coupled with Keough’s disappearance, sends her husband, Alexander Skarsgård, an unhinged Iraq War vet, on a killing spree to find her, and leaves Wright, and local sheriff James Badge Dale, completely in the dark as to what the hell’s happening. Or maybe that’s just the audience.
Guys, I like weird movies. If you’ve read my blog, particularly my analyses of Gozu, Only God Forgives, and Valhalla Rising, you know that. But that doesn’t mean I like all weird movies. I like weird movies where its clear that the filmmakers had intentions, and chose to convey those intentions visually, or with metaphor, as opposed to just telling us. As violent and surreal as Only God Forgives is, its meaning of “this is a man who feels guilty about past sins, and wants to be forgiven” is clear when you look at the imagery. The frequent shots of hands, for instance, particularly the shot of Gosling hallucinating blood on them, relates to his guilt over having killed his father with “his own hands,” as his mother explains. And him getting his hands chopped off at the end by Chang, who represents God, conveys him receiving forgiveness from a higher power. All the imagery is consistent, and supports a theme. This is as opposed to Hold The Dark, where there is surreal imagery, and strange, violent things occur, but none of it is consistent, or coherent enough, to suggest any kind of deeper meaning. And that’s frustrating, because this movie is directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the man behind Green Room, one of the best, most intense thrillers I’ve ever seen. I was hoping this movie would be great. But I realize I’m not making sense. Let me explain.
As I said, Hold The Dark has a lot of interesting imagery and motifs, which suggest a deeper meaning, but are used so inconsistently that whatever meaning Saulmier might have wanted to impart just vanishes. For instance, the film makes frequent reference to wolves. Wright is a wolf expert, Keough claims her son was taken by wolves, and both she and Skarsgård wear a traditional Yupik wolf mask when they’re going crazy. What this would seem to suggest is that wolves are malevolent entities, which have, somehow, infected this couple. A Yupik character claims that they’re possessed, Wright notes how Keough’s killing of her own son is like the wolf practice of “savaging,” wherein a pack will eat its young to survive, and Keough stops Skarsgård from killing her at the end by removing the mask, and seemingly ending the curse. But this theory of “the wolves have infected this town” falls apart when you go back and realize that most of the murders in this film occur when the characters aren’t wearing the mask, and the movie explicitly states that Skarsgård was always violent. In a flashback to his time in Iraq, we see him shooting a car full of insurgents, well past the point of them being dead, and in another flashback, we see him telling his son that killing isn’t wrong. So he was always crazy, which makes Keogh’s removal of the wolf mask at the end feel like a cop out, and also makes his actions throughout the rest of the movie feel random and inconsistent. See, he kills a lot of people to get to her. He kills the cops who were trying to find her for him, the Yupik neighbor woman, his friend, and basically everyone he comes across. Initially, the filmmakers give the justification that he wants to take revenge on Keough for killing their child, but if that were true, why would her taking off his mask stop that? He’d still want to kill her, regardless of what he has on his face. So the only explanation left is that he’s possessed, and that her removing the mask breaks the curse. But, again, the movie contradicts this theory by showing us that he was always a violent asshole. And none of this, none of it, explains why so many other, random ideas are tossed in.
In addition to wanting to be a supernatural mystery, Hold The Dark also strives, and fails, to say things about American society, particularly the American police force and military. In Skarsgård’s Iraq flashback, we see him kill a fellow soldier who’s raping an Iraqi woman. Does this ever factor into the narrative? Nope. It never gets mentioned, and when Skarsgård arrives in Alaska, he doesn’t seem to be bothered by it at all. So, other than to show us something horrible, and potentially comment on how savage the American military is, there’s absolutely no reason to include this scene at all. I, being someone who never, ever, ever likes seeing rape in movies, think that anyway, but even if you don’t mind seeing it, the scene has nothing to do with the overall story, and could easily be removed. Something else that the movie tries to comment on is how cops in the US care more about crimes committed against White people. Keough mentions that two other Yupik children have already gone missing, and Cheeon, her neighbor, and Skarsgård’s best friend, chastises James Badge Dale for not doing anything to help him when his child went missing. This is an idea that could be interesting, but it’s mentioned, in passing, so rarely that it doesn’t register. I literally forgot that other children had gone missing until I read the Wikipedia synopsis, which reminded me of that fact. That’s bad. And speaking of bad things, a lot of people get killed in this movie, seemingly for no reason. At one point, Cheeon, again, seemingly out of nowhere, whips out a machine gun and starts mowing down police officers in an excessively long, if well-staged, shootout. As I mentioned earlier, Skarsgård kills a lot of people, supposedly to stop them from getting in the way of him taking revenge on Keogh, but in the end, he doesn’t do that, making their deaths totally pointless. I’m not saying that there should never be violence in movies. What I’m saying is, violence should serve a purpose. It should convey character, reiterate themes, or, at the very least, be built up to. None of that can be found in this movie.
Guys, I realize this review has gone on for a long time, and that I probably haven’t left you with the best impression of this film, but, the truth is, as frustrating as this picture is, I can’t unequivocally call it bad. I was never, ever bored while watching it, and it’s too well directed from an audio and visual standpoint. There are some shots in here, particularly of Wright walking across the tundra, that are breathtaking, and the use of negative space is superb. The performances, particularly from Wright and Badge Dale, are great. There is enjoyment to be found in this flick, and it’s available on Netflix. So, in a weird way, I am recommending you go see it. But do so knowing that it doesn’t make sense, and that it will frustrate and disappoint you.