Hold the Dark: Snowy mountains, frozen lakes, killer wolf-spirits and Lynchian ambiguity

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-minus

A film that reaches for the coveted adjective “Lynchian,” Hold the Dark is a violent, occult-driven wilderness thriller set in Alaska. It’s from Jeremy Saulnier, who gave us the wrenching Green Room, and it couldn’t be more different (or less clearly focused).

Part of that could be the change of scenery. The latter mostly took place in, well, a room. Hold the Dark, taken from the best-seller by William Giraldi, is set amid mountains and frozen lakes so oppressively huge, it reduces humans in many shots to mere insects at the mercy of nature’s pitiless whim.

The movie opens with a young boy playing with his toy soldier in a snowbank. Not far away, a Grey Wolf watches intently. Cut.

Jeffrey Wright is a wolf-expert on a hunt for, um… something demonic and deadly

Jeffrey Wright is a wolf-expert on a hunt for, um… something demonic and deadly

We next meet Russell Core (Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright), an author and naturalist who has written books about his time in the wild, studying wolves. He receives a letter from a woman in the town of Keelut, Alaska (named, tellingly, for an Inuit evil spirit), who reports on an outbreak of wolves taking children (including hers), and who begs him to come to town, find the rogue wolf that took her son, and kill it.

(Apparently intent on preserving all the novel’s nuances, it’s important we hear that Core has a sort-of estranged daughter living in Anchorage, and that he has doubts about his success as a parent. This is the kind of thing that slows down a movie.)

Arriving in Keelut, however, he discovers rogue wolves aren’t alone on the list of suspects. The “grieving” mother herself, Medora Slone (Riley Keough) gives pause on his very first night. 

As a local shaman named Illanaq (Tantoo Cardinal) warns him, “she knows evil.”

Cut to Medora’s husband Vern (Alexander Skarsgård), who is away in Iraq, with a reputation for kills (a skillset he indulges freelance at one point, when off duty). A near lethal-wound later, and he is sent back to Alaska, where the wolf-spirit apparently took hold of him a long time ago. He is joined there by a similarly-possessed blood brother named Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope).

The wolf-spirit, by the way, is about as close to an explanation of what’s going on as you’re going to get in this movie. The town sheriff  (James Badge Dale) is frustrated for facts when the locals explain what’s going on strictly in terms of legends and spirits. 

The other main clue is Medora’s repeated warning, “Something is wrong with the sky.” Which my brain kept hearing as, “Something is wrong with this guy,” which is arguably equally true.

Considering the (pardon the expression) glacial pace of much of the lead-up, Hold the Dark’s eruption into massacre-level violence is jarring. Once it takes hold, it is relentless and grueling. 

Hold the Dark, by the way, is one of those anomalies of release these days, which sees it available on Netflix and in theatres on the same day. This seems a counterintuitive business practice. But for what it’s worth, the big screen js the best medium on which to watch it. Whatever ambiguities plague the script are dwarfed (like everything else) by the gargantuan natural wonders Saulnier captures. Alaska, here, is less a setting than an overpowering presence.

Hold the Dark. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Starring Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård and James Badge Dale. Opens Friday, September 28 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and on Netflix.