As steaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.
Hold The Dark (2018)
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Macon Blair, based on a book by William Giraldi
Due to some spooky wordpress problems, this week’s entry is going up one day late.
Hold The Dark is a contemporary Gothic horror, a story of a person called out to an oddly foreboding, remote location that’s plagued by violence and rumours of the supernatural, and finding that an unspeakable family secret is at the heart of the locals misfortune. It trades the aged sprawling mansion for a tiny Native village in the Alaskan wilderness, the mysterious vaguely contemptuous patricians for quietly hostile impoverished Natives.
Wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is asked to head to the village of Keelut to hunt and kill wolves that have been killing children. Medora Slone (Riley Keough) writes to Russell after her son Bailey (Beckam Crawford) is “taken” by wolves, the third dead child in a year. Russell decides to go, more as a pretext to visit his estranged daughter in Anchorage than an interest in killing wolves. Russell has had to hunt a kill a wolf that had killed a child before, and the experience still haunts him. Medora had been unable to track the wolves herself, and her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) is on a tour of duty in Iraq (the film is set in 2004). The Slones are the only non-Natives in the village.
Medora is relatively accommodating of Russell, having invited him, but the people of Keelut are extremely provincial and do not like outsiders. County police from the next town over are regarded as outside occupiers. When Russell tells Medora his daughter teaches in Anchorage, Medora sneers “Anchorage is not Alaska.” Their life is frozen wilderness, a small outpost on the edge of civilization, disconnected from a world that they have no interest in.
Russell is ambivalent about his mission. Wolves that have begun to prey on humans are a menace, but Medora’s stated desire for revenge is “not natural,” a misdirection of her grief. Still, he heads into the wilderness to kill the wolves. He tracks the pack down fairly quickly, and finds them in the midst of savaging a young pup–behavior only done during times of starvation or extreme, unnatural stress. Russell slips down a hill and is surrounded by wolves, who surround him, but then leave without attacking. Russell returns to Medora’s house for the night, but she’s gone. He finds Bailey’s body in the basement. Meanwhile, Vernon is sent home from Iraq after being shot in the neck. Police Chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) is in charge of the investigation, and promises Vernon that they will find and arrest Medora. Vernon does not want the police to find Medora, initially seeming to want to personally take his revenge, but is hinted to have far more complicated reasons for wanting to be the one to find Medora instead of the cops.
Jeremy Sauliner’s previous films, Blue Ruin and Green Room, are known for their incompetent protagonists. However, with the exception of cannon fodder cops, everybody here knows what they’re doing. Russell is older and seems to loss a step every now and then–and suffers a cold in the latter half of the film–but he is still a very good tracker, locating the wolf pack within a day, and is able to track down Vernon when he decides to help with the manhunt. Donald rises to the occasion of a bizarre case, and keeps his compose under literal fire during a machine gun ambush that turns into a miniature D-Day. Vernon is a skilled killer. He is first seen in Iraq, calmly blasting away a group of insurgents while gunfire pings off his armored vehicle, and stabbing to death an American soldier he finds raping an Iraqi woman. Once back in Alaska, he is similarly emotionless as he kills everyone in his way and tracks down Medora.
Native Americans are a large part of the narrative, and there is a specificity in the Keelutians suspicion of the all-white police force. Vernon is aided in thwarting the police by Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), a fellow villager who resents the police inaction when his child was killed by wolves. Once Bailey’s body is discovered, the locals initial statement to police is that Medora is a mythical shapeshifter called a tournaq, (or, possibly tuurngait? Tournaq only brings up Hold The Dark articles, but tuurngait possesses people, not a shapeshifter) that sheds its skin and lives among the wolves. In Inuit mythology, “Keelut” is an evil spirit that resembles a hairless dog and is a harbinger of death. A Keelut leaves no footprints making it impossible to track, which is notable for a story that revolves around tracking wolves and killers. There are two separate shaman-like figures–and old Native woman in the village, Illanaq (Tantoo Cardinal), who warns that Medora is evil, and Hunter John (Peter McRobbie), a white man that once gave a young Vernon “wolf oil” in an attempt to curb “unnatural impulses” that the young Vernon had exhibited. Still, the theme of Native resentment of white ‘civilization’ is filtered through a story of a white couple being chased by a white cop, with the help of an African-American from out of state.
There’s also a wolf mask, a blank vaguely canine shaped wooden mask, that Medora wears when attempting to either seduce Russell or entice him to kill her, and which makes it way to Vernon via Hunter John. The mask simplifies the Slones to their primal instincts, which are mainly violence. The wolf mask ties into the large theme of wolves–prowling in the wilderness, ready to kill without remorse, or show unexpected mercy. While wolves killing children is what starts the narrative, they aren’t monsters. Russell views wolves as part of nature–which entails brutality and violence, sure, but not sadism. Violence just violence sake, revenge and evil, are not natural.
There is also a theme of absent fathers–Russell, Vernon, and Donald are all fathers, and concerns over not being involved with their children are underlined. There is a flashback to Vernon taking Bailey out hunting just before Vernon is deployed. Vernon tries to assure his son that he will always be with him, even if he is physically gone, and Bailey looks away while telling him not to lie. Donald’s wife is six months pregnant, and Cheeon threatens Donald by describing his wife, “hand on her belly” getting a phone call informing her that Donald will never be coming home. Russell is trying to get the situation resolved, so he can see his estranged daughter in Anchorage, although the cause of their estrangement is never mentioned. There is a bit of unintentional humor when Donald asks what it’s like being a father, and Russell pauses before ominously intoning “Amazing” with all the enthusiasm of a doctor delivering a cancer diagnosis.
There is an understated quality to the violence, similar to Sauliers’ Blue Ruin, a sort of matter of fact quality that keeps the more lurid elements from going over the top. There is the aforementioned machine gun ambush, which could’ve turned into a Terminator 2 shoot-em-up, but manages to maintain real tension. There is also a scene where Vernon, wearing the wolf mask, silently menaces a character just as they are calling the cops on him, and then stabs them in the top of the head, a sequence which wouldn’t be out of place in a Halloween sequel, but still works. The subtlety works against the film with one plot element, which was made explicit in novel, but is only implied here. This plot point is extremely important in understanding the ending, which is open ended as is, and would be bafflingly inconclusive if you don’t pick up on it.
Hold The Dark isn’t perfect–somebody more qualified than me could write a paper on the role of Natives in the story, and I’m sure that if it were a major theatrical release, we’d be flooded with takes and counter-takes on that subject now, perhaps one or two even written by Native Americans. The ending leaves something to be desired, the film building up to a climax, then just sputtering to a vague conclusion. Still, it is a very worthy follow up to Blue Ruin and Green Room, showing that Sauliner can adapt to a somewhat bigger canvas.
Washed Up Flop or Hidden Gem? Hidden Gem.