' ' Cinema Romantico: Hold the Dark

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Hold the Dark

“Anchorage isn’t Alaska.”

There is a moment early in Jeremy Saulnier’s “Hold the Dark” when Medora (Riley Keough) and Russell (Jeffrey Wright), a naturalist author whom she has hired to help find her son, supposedly taken by wolves deep in the heart of Alaska, are trudging through the snowy wilderness, and Medora references “the war.” Really, that’s as specific as it gets, with Russell mentioning people dying, and the enigmatic nature of their conversation in concert with the elliptical storytelling up to this point made me think, for an instant, that maybe, just maybe, “Hold the Dark” was set in some future world still to be unveiled. That isn’t the case; it is present day. And yet the vibe is so deliberately eerie, it feels otherworldly anyway, which is sort of the point, an evocative illustration of Alaska without being a mere travelogue, emitting the air of having been made by that person you never see at the beginning of “Into the Wild”, passing judgment on Emile Hirsch’s version of Chris McCandless for being ill-equipped to venture into, well, obviously. Alaska, this Alaska, is no place for the weak, physically, mentally, spiritually. You feel it by the end. This isn’t make-believe scary Alaska, where vampires come out at night, or some such, but something more stone cold terrifying, rendered with indelible atmospheric tone. That tone, in the end, might well be all the movie has, yet I still came away thinking it might be more than enough.

Even as “Hold the Dark” begins and the plot is set in motion, things seem off, not least because of the delightfully off-kilter performances, with Wright communicating in grunts, like he hasn't had human contact in months, and hunched over as if carrying a great weight. Keough, meanwhile, in her very air seems to be harboring the secret that Russell spends the rest of the movie trying to uncover, eventually in tandem with the local sheriff, Donald Marium (James Badge Dale). After Medora and Russell first meet, he stays the night, and she wanders out of her bedroom wearing some sort of wolf mask in a scene that rather than going straight slasher opts for a WTF? The nudity is gratuitous, but mostly because Keough has already thoroughly creeped you out before she slips her clothes and puts on that mask.

That sensation extends overseas to Iraq where we meet her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), whose icy detachment is no different whether he’s gunning down the enemy or saving a local woman being raped by an American soldier. If his actions might be deemed heroic, Skarsgård drains them of any heroism, coming across more like a living ghost going through the heroic motions. And in the immediate aftermath of the latter, when he is suddenly hit by a bullet from a shooter we never see, it illustrates an inconsequentiality to all these events, the desert and dust of Iraq portrayed as indifferent an arbiter as the snowy tundra of Alaska.

When Vernon returns from Iraq, however, “Hold the Dark’s” agreeably moody spell is gradually undone as the movie takes a hard turn into violence in the form of a killing spree, the movie stopping in its tracks midway through for an excruciating showpiece slaughter evoking the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting. If that sounds inappropriate, Saulnier is not spilling blood just for blood’s sake, but drawing the comparison, if brutally, that back home is no different from overseas. That allegory, however, becomes less potent as the mystery to which it is tied eventually winds its way to nothing, the night inscrutable rendering of the conclusion seeming to be a concession to the very fact that thematically it’s all for naught. No, the high point is the wrap-up’s ensuing sequence where, searching for both Medora and Vernon, Russell and Sheriff Marium fly deep into the Alaskan wilderness, their float plane nearly blotted out against the intimidating, towering panorama, the musical score suggesting beauty and eerie fright in equal measure, as if whatever awaits them is not comparable to what is all around them.

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