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A Land of Wolves: ‘Hold the Dark’ and the Horror of the Great Outdoors

Director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest is a psychological horror movie for Netflix. Does it retain the sense of terror and humor that defined earlier triumphs including ‘Blue Ruin’ and ‘Green Room’?

Netflix/Ringer illustration

There were a lot of good lines on the new season of BoJack Horseman, which I watched mostly alone in a hotel room in the middle of the night, exactly as its creators intended. With respect to Misters Peanutbutter (“Are you the umlaut in Chloë Sevigny’s name right now? Because I don’t know why you’re here but I’m glad you are!”) and Fondle (“I am a horny robot!”) the single best bit of dialogue went to one Flip McVicker, the scheming prestige-TV showrunner voiced by Rami Malek as a pitch-perfect parody of Nic Pizzolatto. At one point, he’s asked to justify the brutal content and bleak tone of his new police procedural, Philbert, a show about a hard-drinking, two-fisted, womanizing true detective who waxes “not for cosmetic purposes. He just wants to feel something.”

Flip, whose thin, quavering voice and weak, scraggly chin mark him as a beta-male type even as his scripts overflow with machismo, resorts to a catchy, deeply meaningless bit of crime-is-a-flat-circle tautology: “The darkness,” he says in a hushed voice, “is a metaphor for darkness.”

I don’t know whether Jeremy Saulnier watches BoJack Horseman, but if he does, I hope he had a good laugh at that one. Last year, Saulnier was tapped to direct the highly anticipated third season of True Detective (starring Mahershala Ali), a move meant to reproduce the stylistic continuity of the show’s initial incarnation, helmed by Cary Fukunaga. In a moment when many of the best shows on television are employing an auteur approach, hiring a gifted, youngish filmmaker with genre chops to bring coherence back to a property that had arguably lapsed into self-parody on its second go-round made a lot of sense. But then Saulnier bailed after completing the first two episodes. The initial explanation for his departure was “scheduling conflicts,” but it’s since come out that the director had creative differences with Pizzolatto, a self-styled mastermind whose combative reputation precedes him to the point that BoJack could use him as a kind of symbolic villain — knowing that a Netflix audience would get the joke.

We won’t know until January whether True Detective’s third season will end up redeeming the brand after the hot mess of Season 2 (RIP, Stan). Meanwhile, the name of Saulnier’s new Netflix-produced thriller sounds like something that Flip McVicker could have scribbled on one of his writers’ room index cards. Following the color-coded duo of Blue Ruin and Green Room, the title of Hold the Dark is suggestive, to say the least. It hints that Saulnier, whose foremost skill is juggling off-kilter humor with jaw-dropping shocks, is strategically desaturating his creative palette, blotting out the vivid streaks of comedy that illuminated his breakthrough movies and retreating fully into the neo-noir shadows. The film is an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, but if there’s an artistic mandate here, it comes from Spinal Tap: “none more black.”

The darkness in Hold the Dark is both literal and symbolic. The sun rarely shines in the remote Alaskan outpost of Keelut, and when it does it illuminates a community whose members — a mix of white and Yu’pik locals living in an uneasy detente — are apt to keep to themselves. The story begins with the arrival of an outsider, naturalist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who’s been summoned by a local woman named Medora (the truly chameleonic Riley Keough). She claims that her son has been taken by wolves — an incident depicted so elliptically in the film’s pre-credit sequence that we have reason to doubt whether or not it’s true. Medora believes that Russell’s knowledge of wolves and understanding of their pack mentality — gleaned during the writing of his book (Suggestive Title Alert!) A Year Among Them — will make him a great tracker. But while Russell feels for Medora, he’s a reluctant savior, even more so when he begins to suspect there are stranger things going on. The wolves, it seems, are a metaphor for something else.

Between its missing-child set-up, spooky folk-horror interludes, overarching sense of existential dread, and intermittent bouts of almost unbelievably brutal violence — including an extended shoot-out that evokes The Wild Bunch by way of John Woo and probably won’t be topped in terms of grim, lethal choreography anytime soon — there’s no question that Saulnier’s latest goes hard. Whether Hold the Dark gets anywhere significant in the end is less clear, but in its expanded scope and ambition, it nevertheless represents a logical step for a director who previously earned his buzz by keeping things tight, and is now inclined to try to stretch himself. “I wanted to break out,” he told IndieWire in August.

The industry-adjacent modesty of Saulnier’s earlier efforts is well documented and pretty darn heartwarming. A former skateboarder and punk rocker who kept his film school pals close while he was cutting his teeth on corporate videos, Saulnier eked out a low-budget horror comedy called Murder Party. That movie’s skin-of-its-teeth ingenuity attracted attention from festival programmers. Its premise, in which a group of callow, callous art school kids host a Halloween bash to attract potential victims for a lethal piece of conceptual art, satirized millennial detachment while delivering the gory goods in its home stretch. By the end, the increasingly bloody clash between the lonely, anxious, but resourceful Chris (Christopher S. Hawley) — who arrives to the festivities in a cardboard knight costume like a homemade Don Quixote — and his captors, who work for a mysterious patron, takes on a larger dimension: The murder party is a metaphor for independent filmmaking.

The funniest of Murder Party’s villains is Macon, who spends the movie dressed as a werewolf and takes his first name from the actor playing him, Macon Blair, Saulnier’s closest friend from childhood. In high school, the pair worked together on a series of goofy, violent spoofs, and Murder Party’s minor but genuine success was an extension of their youthful adventures. “The comfort zone for Macon and I is slapstick comedy, zombies, blood and good times,” Saulnier told Rolling Stone in 2014. “[Our friendship] started out us pretending to be filmmakers. [After Murder Party], we realized we had so much more to say and do. We embraced the fact that we had to wrap up this childhood arc — this insane fantasy of wanting to be filmmakers — and just make a film that was right and true.”

It would be an understatement to say that Saulnier and Blair’s aim was true with Blue Ruin: The case for their place in the genre vanguard starts there. Shot primarily in its director’s and star’s native Virginia and brilliantly imagined by Saulnier (acting as his own cinematographer) as a series of long, clean horizon lines, the film is one of the 21st century’s best-realized action thrillers, evoking both the regional eccentricity and the bloody simplicity of early Coen brothers productions. Blair, whose furry, schlumpy physicality was a sight gag in Murder Party, plays Dwight, a vagrant who feels a renewed sense of purpose when he learns that the man who murdered his parents is about to be released from prison. Despite having no qualifications as a bounty hunter, he decides to act in the grand tradition of American vigilantism, taking the law — and the killer’s fate — into his own hands.

Instead of a slow-burn character study in which a civilian weighs the wages of becoming judge, jury, and executioner, Blue Ruin adopts the form of bullet-riddled farce, with Dwight succeeding too quickly for his own good and becoming the target of the slain man’s own revenge-minded family members. Blair’s sheepish, Zach Galifianakis–ish appearance sells the idea that Dwight is making things up as he goes along, while Saulnier’s filmmaking is assured in ways that belie both his relative lack of experience at the time and Kickstarter-aided financing package. Part cautionary fable, part gun-culture critique, and fully impressive, Blue Ruin screened at Cannes and garnered the good reviews it deserved: Instead of a culmination of Saulnier backyard-filmmaker ambitions, it was the sort of movie that could plausibly launch a career.

Like Murder Party and Blue Ruin, 2015’s Green Room is essentially a story about characters who get in over their heads. Its protagonists are the members of a touring, wilfully obscure young punk rock band called the Ain’t Rights that gets booked to play in an Oregon-area roadhouse patronized by a group of neo-Nazis led by Patrick Stewart. As in Murder Party, the mayhem is allegorical, pitting its DIY heroes — played by Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, and the late Anton Yelchin — against skinheads who first take offense to their impromptu, defiant cover of the Dead Kennedys’ self-evidently antifascist “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and then get really nasty after the band witnesses a murder backstage.

If there’s nothing particularly subtle or nuanced about the standoff between the Ain’t Rights and the Alt-Rights, that’s OK. Green Room’s politics are as brash and loud as a three-chord guitar solo: When the bad guys are already neo-Nazis, metaphor goes out the window.

The film is ultimately more of a war movie than a state of the union, reveling in the logistics of close-quarters cat-and-mouse countermanuevers as the two groups stalk each other through a darkened, dilapidated club. Notwithstanding Saulnier’s eerie prescience in using white nationalist militiamen as villains (and the odd masterstroke of casting the ever-diplomatic Captain Picard as their leader), Green Room’s virtues are ultimately as small-scaled and self-contained as its story line, and it’s less soulful than Blue Ruin, which accessed a range of emotions through Blair’s acting (he’s in Green Room as Stewart’s lieutenant, and he’s terrific).

It would be nice to report that Hold the Dark extends the promise of Blue Ruin and Green Room, but it doesn’t, at least not for me. It’s been made with the same skill and sense of visual drama (with crystalline widescreen cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck), and while it’s a bigger undertaking in every way than its predecessors, it retains some of the same all-in-the-family feeling, with a screenwriting credit for Blair, who also contributes a cameo. What works is the sense of place, with Saulnier using the isolation of the Alaskan locale to create a feeling that anything could happen at any time, and given the twists of the narrative — which also includes an entire parallel plot about an Iraq War veteran played by Alexander Skarsgard, whose connection to Keelut runs deep and cold — that arbitrariness is appropriate.

But it also means that the tight, compressed, precise style of Blue Ruin and Green Room has been replaced by something more draggy and ambient. No doubt that Russell’s weird passivity as a hero is intentional, or that the way that Skarsgard’s character, whose battlefield heroism disguises baser instincts, comes to really drive the action serves some larger point. It’s just that ephemeral dread isn’t Saulnier’s thing. When David Lynch does incomprehensible, free-floating terror, you get enduring, unshakable art; when Lucrecia Martel tries to hypnotize the audience into confusion, the effect is fully entrancing. Saulnier can do brooding (as in Blue Ruin) and brutal (as in Green Room), but he isn’t ready to get metaphysical, or the material for his first adaptation doesn’t suit him as much as it would seem. The darkness in Hold the Dark is definitely a metaphor for something, but it’s also hiding the fact that there isn’t much to see.