In a few short years, director Jeremy Saulnier has thrillingly become whatever the opposite of a friendly tour guide is, the artfully grim paths set by his indie revenge saga “Blue Ruin” and doozy of a siege flick “Green Room” proving that where Saulnier leads, you’re likely to follow with equal parts tingly concern and grindhouse-promised excitement.
Saulnier’s evolution has led him to “Hold the Dark,” a moodily violent, willfully enigmatic Alaska-set mystery about the beast within that isn’t always the most persuasively realized experience. But its determined ambition and atmospheric skill keeps Saulnier firmly in the category of directors to watch.
Lured by an imploring missive, wolf specialist and nature author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) travels alone to the isolated Alaskan outpost of Keelut, where lonely military wife Medora Slone (Riley Keough) is convinced her missing boy was seized by wolves. Though Medora’s behavior is alarming — her bizarre nighttime manner is our first clue things aren’t entirely what they seem — Russell empathizes enough to set out in search of the creatures that took her son. Clue No. 2: Russell happens upon a bloodied wolf pack, all right, but what they’re gnawing on is one of their own.
Until then, Saulnier has imbued the fierce, enveloping calm of this harshly beautiful landscape — and Core’s unease as its visitor — with a curiously forthright ponderousness. It’s when Core returns to Keelut, however, when the story, adapted by Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair from William Giraldi’s acclaimed novel, takes its Jack London-meets-“Deliverance” aura into a decidedly more churning gear.
A gruesome discovery back in Keelut, and Medora’s own sudden disappearance, sets in motion an investigation that calls home from Iraq her husband Vernon, played by the lanky, intense Alexander Skarsgård. A stoic wraith whom we first encounter committing righteous murder in a sequence set in Fallujah, Vernon isn’t so different on home turf, opting to set in motion a puzzling, bloody crusade of vengeance that turns this frozen, distressed area at civilization’s outer perimeter into a fresh hunting ground.
Embedded in the movie’s DNA is a view of tribalism and man’s capacity for savagery that may not be terribly new, but it’s rendered through Saulnier’s measured compositions and methodical pacing with an almost stern respect. (How else would we get the pitch-black thrillers Saulnier loves if human beings weren’t so terrible to each other?) “Hold the Dark” clings to the notion that in the quest to make sense of what roils inside us – hunger, anger, grief – the Vernons of the world readily enter the abyss, while others, like Core, whom Wright plays with a bone-deep strickenness, and James Badge Dale’s conscientious local cop on the trail of Vernon, embrace that there’s something that should pull us back from it.
That tension isn’t terribly interesting when the focus is Vernon’s strange rampage, which eventually leans into a mysticism that’s less to-the-marrow eerie than head-scratchingly tedious. But that heart-of-darkness strain is in full force for the movie’s gut-wrenching centerpiece, a civil-before-it’s-chaotic standoff between law enforcement and a childhood friend of Vernon’s named Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), whose own rage has taken him to the brink. It’s a prime, Peckinpah-worthy example of how a sequence of righteous wrath can bleed with the sins of history and the confounding awfulness of despair.
Individual scenes have power, but it’s in the connecting, and the stop/start momentum, where Saulnier regrettably allows his movie to outlast its effectiveness and eventually feel forced. Nevertheless, “Hold the Dark” is wholly evocative, from the stunning locations to the wintry pall created by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Unlike the technical flashiness of the similarly immersive “The Revenant,” Saulnier’s movie has a lived-in chill that practically breathes on you. It just might not linger the way he wants it to.
‘Hold the Dark’
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes