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Non-Review Review: Hold the Dark

“Do you have any idea what’s outside these windows? How black it gets?”

An enlightening piece of work.

In the American consciousness, the frontier is a haunted place.

In some ways, it is a concept distinct to the United States, at least in contrast to Europe. The boundaries within Europe were established centuries ago; although they might shift and bend, the contours of the continent have been known to the people who inhabited it for millennia. In contrast, to the settlers who arrived from Europe, the North American frontier was a mystery and an enigma. The frontier is distinct a border space. A border implies a point of collision that might be crossed, the neatly delineated boundary between one place and another.

Let Bisons be Bisons.

The frontier is something entirely different. It represents the edge of reason, and limit of what is knowable. To reach the end of the frontier is to reach the end of “the West.” In geographical terms, off the western shore of the North American continent lies “the East.” In more abstract terms, the American frontier is an imaginary space rather than a literal one. After all, Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film – Green Room – suggested that the frontier could be found somewhere  surprisingly close to urbanity, only a few hours away from the familiar comforts of Portland.

Hold the Dark takes place in a decidedly more remote environment, against the snow backdrops of Alaska. Saulnier goes to great lengths to illustrate the isolation of that environment, paying particular attention to how long it takes Russell Core to reach the small Alaskan town that serves as the starting point of the story before venturing out into the real wilderness. At another point, Vernon Slone stops by an old hostel on his travels. Asked for his point of origin, he’s informed that there was no road connecting the two places. “Not directly,” he clarifies.

Shedding some light on the matter.

As with the snow-covered western wilderness in Wind River, there is a sense that Hold the Dark unfolds against the very limit of the American frontier, at the point where the continent has ceased to provide for the settlers and instead has become something harsh and unforgiving. It is a place that has been settled by humans, but is perhaps untouched by humanity. If Green Room allowed Saulnier to explore the vipers coiled underneath familiar rocks, then Hold the Dark is a story about the animals that hunt at the very edge of civilisation.

Green Room was effectively a cynical and grim take on the familiar horror plot that warned of the dangers lurking off the backroads, just out of sight. Hold the Dark is the story of a hunt for a dangerous predator in a harsh environment. In both films, the monster looks very familiar.

Mask appeal.

The basic plot of Hold the Dark concerns a small community that has been subject to a series of wolf attacks. Children has been abducted by these wild animals in broad daylight, and dragged off into the wilderness. The latest victim is the son of Medori and Vernon Slone. Vernon is serving in Iraq, and the disappearance understandably causes great pain for Medori. Desperate for something (“I must have something to show him,” she writes), she reaches out to writer Russell Core to track down the beast that murdered her son. He does, after a fashion.

Hold the Dark is adapted from a novel by William Giraldi. Events in the story place it sometime around Christmas 2004, with Core watching news coverage of the “Second Battle of Fallujah.” Indeed, there are shades of the War on Terror to be found within the film’s narrative. As she offers Core a guided tour of the region, Medori muses of the war in which her husband has enlisted, “Someone on the radio said it’s not a real war.” Core adopts a more philosophical and abstract approach. “People are dying,” he observes. “It’s real enough.”

No kidding around.

There’s very little new in the Hobbesian idea that all civilisation and even existence is essentially an extended battle, a struggle for survival against a bleak and uncaring universe. Saulnier’s films tend to literalise that struggle, presenting the struggle of its’ characters in visceral and aggressive terms. As in Green Room, there are extended stretches of Hold the Dark where it feels like an insurmountable struggle for key characters to draw breath, let alone to continue pushing forward. The world as presented by is either an obstacle course or a crucible, depending on how much faith one has in the end result.

Hold the Dark has a compelling atmosphere. Saulnier manages to create a tone that is both nightmarishly abstract and immediately tangible. A lot of that is down to the crisp digital cinematography of Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. During the late night scenes of Hold the Dark, everything takes on a very uncanny and eerie quality, a heightened sense that the characters are moving through a space that isn’t quite the real world. Fluorescent lighting casts a sterile green glow over these tense night sequences, suggesting something unnatural.

Hungry like the wolf.

It is telling that most of the scenes focusing on Vernon Slone take place at night, as the character hacks out a brutal path across the Alaskan frontier. There is something uncanny about Vernon, a soldier who has returned home from one war in order to wage another. He is a brutally efficient and monstrous killing machine. He seems like something taken from the pages of a fairy tale long before he dons a wolf mask carved from wood. “When’s the last time you wore a mask?” wonders the old man selling those wood carvings. “I’d say you need to let the wolf out a little. They all do out here.” Vernon certainly lets the wolf out.

However, this ethereal nighttime atmosphere is contrasted with the more visceral daytime sequences. If Vernon is a creature wandering through a crisp and sterile nightmare, Russell is navigating a much more tangible world. During the day, Saulnier focuses on the material reality of life in the Alaskan wilderness. “You’re going to need better boots,” remarks Medori when she first meets Russell. The snow crunches under his feet, as Russell trips and falls. Whereas Vernon moves like a force of nature through the night, Russell stumbles often through the daylight.

Cold-blooded chaos.

In keeping with the recurring motif of primal struggle and animalistic intent, Hold the Dark returns time and again to the idea of the hunt. Both Vernon and Russell are hunters in their own fashion. However, Vernon is pursuing something much more tangible, while Russell seems to be searching for something more abstract. Vernon is a man who has made his peace with the idea of the world as a cruel and senseless place; he is introduced to the audience in a different sort of hunting ground, hunting a different sort of prey, but he acts without hesitation or without reflection.

In contrast, Russell is presented a man who requires the world to make sense, which is perhaps why this case unsettles him so. Drawn to Alaska by Medori’s letter, he is reluctant to promise to kill the beast responsible for murdering Medori’s child. Instead, he promises, “I’ve come to explain this… if I can.” The law enforcement official assigned to the case, Donald Mariam, reflects on the destruction wrought. “I’m not convinced the answers exist.” Russell is convinced, “They do, even if they’re not in our experience.”

Rest on the mantlepiece.

One of the most interesting tensions within Hold the Dark is the central metaphor that parallels human and animal, as Russell repeatedly compares and contrasts the behaviours of the wolves circling the village with those of the humans inhabiting it. “When I encountered the wolves, they were in the process of devouring one of their own,” Russell recalls to Mariam at one point of his encounter with a group of wild animals. “A pup. It’s not uncommon at all. When resources are scarce, or there are uncommon stresses, some of the young may be sacrificed to protect the group. The behavioural term is savaging.”

Mariam takes a moment to process what Russell might be suggesting under that observation. “I’m not talking about animals here, Mister Core,” Marian informs the writer. Russell doesn’t seem particularly convinced, “If you say so.” When there are suggestions that a human might possibly have a hand in the brutal acts afflicting the community, Mariam remarks that villagers are speculating that one their own “is possessed by a wolf demon.” Vernon and Medori even play into that idea by wearing wooden wolf masks as they skulk through the weird night space.

Snow way outta here.

Hold the Dark adds a number of interesting complications to that somewhat simplistic and straightforward implication, the cynical argument that human beings can be little more than animals when pushed to the edge of reason. Hold the Dark cleverly pushes beyond that rudimentary Hobbesian world view to suggest that perhaps human beings, even when pushed to their most primal, are infinitely more complex and unknowable that a simple set of animal behaviours. Russell thinks that his understanding of animal psychology might help him navigate this horrifying set of circumstances, but there’s more to it than that.

As with Green Room, there is a shocking and horrific brutality in Hold the Dark, a reminder that even human nature is red in tooth and claw. As sterile as the fluorescent nighttime scenes might be and as crisply white as the daytime sequences might appear, Hold the Dark never shies from the graphic violence of the world in which the characters find themselves. Particular credit is due to Michael Marino as prosthetic makeup effects designer and Brett Schmidt as special makeup effects artist.

Barrelling along.

However, Saulnier himself does great work. There is an extended sequence in the middle of the film – shot in broad daylight in a relatively open space – that is one of the most effective action sequences in recent memory. It is not effective for its choreography or its stunt work, but instead for the skill with which Saulnier captures panic and chaos. It is a sequence that feels like it is adapted from a much bigger movie with a much more epic sweep, and there is something to be said for the way that Saulnier infuses it with a sense claustrophobic anxiety. It should be an action scene, but it becomes a horror beat.

Hold the Dark is a bit less dynamic and propulsive than Green Room, lacking the previous film’s sense of forward moment. Indeed, for all that Green Room was a stunningly brutal piece of cinema, it also had a surprising vein of warmth and humanity running through it. Hold the Dark is a much more introspective film, much more solemn and philosophical in its concerns. It is a grim affair, as one might expect of a movie that opens with the death of three children in the remote Alaskan wilderness and only escalates from there.

When you’re looking for pertinent information in a snow storm, they call it “goggling.”

However, for all of that, there’s a lot to like in Hold the Dark. There is an endearingly contemplative quality to the film, suggesting that Saulnier is as morbidly fascinated with the characters and the environment as Russell himself. It’s a hauntingly beautiful work, an unsettling meditation upon the frontier.

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