If you've watched 'Green Room' and 'Blue Ruin', director Jeremy Saulnier's two calling-card movies, you can go into 'Hold The Dark' knowing that you're going to get something truly unlike any other movie out there in the modern landscape.
Saulnier's work lingers for days, crawling under your skin and hatching in the back of your brain in a way that few directors are able to do so effectively nowadays, and speaks to his supreme talent with the horror / thriller genre as a whole. 'Green Room' worked like a stripped-back iteration of 'Assault On Precinct 13', turning neo-Nazis into the nameless criminals and stretching out the violence into an unbearably tense finale. 'Blue Ruin', meanwhile, blended Western and noir tropes with a modern sensibility and a pitch-black streak of humour running through it. 'Hold The Dark', however, has neither of these things going for it, but it still manages to be effective in the same way Saulnier's previous work has.
The movie is stripped back and almost impressionistic in how it treats plot, character and emotions and it's not an easy watch - either for its goriness or for its overall tone. It moves at a snail's pace, snaps into action for an extended middle-point, and then ultimately winds up in a less-than-neat ending that may feel unsatisfactory. Jeffrey Wright plays an author and expert on wolf biology who received a letter from a war widow, played by Riley Keough, whose child was taken by wild wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. Her husband, Alexander Skarsgard, is due to return home from war and Keough's strangely detached nature suggests there is something amiss in their relationship.
Really, though, that's the bare bones of the story and there's far more going on than meets the eye. The way in which Riley Keough, Alexander Skarsgard and Jeffrey Wright approach their characters and overall performance is truly unsettling; especially when it becomes clear how set apart they are from more human and relatable characters like James Badge Dale's exasperated sheriff or Julian Black Antelope's violent Native American with a vendetta against, well, everyone. This speaks to the overall themes that 'Hold The Dark' is addressing, that we're all just a few generations removed from wild beasts and that we're all kidding ourselves with notions of civility.
That's a recurring theme for Jeremy Saulnier, the casual nature of violence in daily life and how it can infect the most the unlikely of places - be it a punk nightclub or the bleak and beautiful landscape of Alaska. Dread is something that's always been pervasive in his work, and 'Hold The Dark' is no different, but with a two-hour runtime compared to the lean and sharp ninety minutes of 'Blue Ruin' and 'Green Room', it has to work harder to sustain itself and the stop-start pacing can feel laborious to the viewer. It's not a surprise that Netflix picked up this movie up as it would likely be hailed critically and ignored commercially in a normal release pattern. Instead, it can slink into cult status as a dense thriller with some riveting performances with a vicious heart.
'Hold The Dark' arrives on Netflix worldwide on September 28.