Review: Hold the Dark

Distributor: Netflix

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Writers: Macon Blair

Composer: Brooke Blaire & Will Blaire

Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Rating: TV-MA

The acclaimed director of great recent films like Blue Ruin, Green Room, and Murder Party is back with a brand new film that has just premiered on Netflix! While the director’s previous films indulged in gratuitous violence to great effect, this new film Hold the Dark attempts to scale back his violent tendencies to create a darker, more somber thriller story. Does it work? Sadly not as much as I’d hope it would’ve.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Multiple characters are shot with blood shown, characters are shot with arrows, a corpse is shown, and a character is stabbed brutally in the head.

Language/Crude Humor: Severe languaging including g**d***, f***, and s***

Drug/Alcohol References: Two characters drink alcohol.

Sexual Content: Full frontal female nudity shown in one scene, a woman is raped, and two people kiss naked in a pool with nothing showing.

Spiritual Content: Several Native American characters reference spirituality.

Other Negative Content: Significant carnage, murder, attempted adultery, and most of the bad characters aren’t punished for their actions.

Positive Content: Most of the negative content in the film isn’t endorsed by the film’s story.

Review

Jeremy Saulnier is one of the great modern directors that cinephiles love to salivate over. His work is gratuitous, visually gorgeous, and violent in the extreme but he has historically been very adept at developing stories within the confines of a limited scope to tell brilliantly simple stories about violence, vengeance, and retaliation. Blue Ruin (2014) was a critical darling of the indie film circuit culled together on a shoestring budget of $420,000 that still looked more visually dynamic and colorful than anything Hollywood can accomplish. Comparatively, Deadpool had a budget of $58 million and the movie looks like it was shot in a scrap yard (because it was…).

His third feature film (not including Murder Party which I haven’t seen yet) was Green Room (2016) which overtook the year’s film discussion amongst lovers of gratuitously violent cinema. The film easily contested recently over the top gore-fests like Bone Tomahawk for one of the grizzliest cinematic experiences in recent years with all the bone-crunching, knife splitting, dog biting, blood spilling violence a person could ask for. Like its predecessor, Green Room was visually sumptuous with rich neon greens, yellows, and browns overtaking the unsettling setting of the rural Oregon forest. Both Green Room and Blue Ruin showed Saulnier as one of the great modern suspense filmmakers. He’s indulgent but he understands the importance of impact and uses his violence to explore interesting characters in dark stories.

With this summer came the realization for me and many others that Netflix was going to be distributing one of the greatest slates of recent films ever dropped on their service. In the next several months we’re due to receive releases from Gareth Evans (The Apostle), Paul Greengrass (22 July), Orson Welles (Other Side of the Wind), the Coen Brothers (Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Alfonso Cuaron (Roma), and next year we’re due for Martin Scorsese’s newest film (The Irishman). If these names don’t ring a bell, consider that these directors are responsible for creating (respectively) The Raid, The Bourne Ultimatum, Citizen Kane, No Country for Old Men, Gravity, and Goodfellas.

That’s not all of course as this month brings us the first in this lineup of insanely interesting films with Saulnier’s follow-up to Green Room. I knew nothing about his new film other than its title Hold the Dark. I went into the movie blind to when it was announced, what the source material of the film was based on, and what the actual plot of the film was about. I only had my expectations ready to assume I was in for Saulnier’s third great suspense thriller.

I will say off the bat that Hold the Dark is a disappointment. It’s a well-meaning disappointment that speaks well of Saulnier’s willingness to branch out and explore larger ideas and scopes of storytelling but it lacks the visceral impact of his two most famous films. It’s not a thriller in the same way that his last two films are. Both of those films benefit from an immediacy to their dramatic structure.

Blue Ruin is about seeking revenge for family and everything about the film thematically and structurally ties into that goal. Green Room is about a group of people defending themselves from Neo-Nazis in an isolated room and the whole film is structured around their imprisonment and eventual escape. Hold the Dark is a mystery film that slowly pans out into a slower, low heat drama about a series of disappearing children amongst the Alaskan tundra. It’s a very different kind of story for Saulnier and it’s executed with a lot more restraint than his previous films. Unfortunately, there is much to be desired.

Visually it looks very good by the standards of Netflix films. I’m never sure whether it’s the camera quality, production design, or color grading but a great deal of Netflix’s filmography has a really cheap looking visual style to it that harkens back to made-for-TV movies and Redbox shovelware. By the standards of his prior film, Hold the Dark merely looks colorless and flat but that’s not bad for Netflix standards. It’s possible this is a very intentional choice on his part to draw back the colors and make the setting more in tune with the themes but it loses the visual flare his films usually draw upon.

In interviews for the film, Saulnier talked about how the pitch for the film to its producers was “Snow Country for Old Men“. It’s not surprising that Saulnier would turn to the Coen Brothers for inspiration for his most ambitious film yet. No Country for Old Men is at once deeply poetic, lurid, and thematically complex. It’s prime material for a director who focuses so much of his work around violence. With Hold the Dark he clearly tried to hold back on his violent tendencies and use them sparsely. He favors theme, dour tone, and a brutal setting to explore the film’s story and it’s much to his credit that he goes so far outside his comfort zone as an artist to try this.

That being said it might be true that his films work better when they’re limited in scope. Many artists work best when they have severe limitations and have to create creative solutions to fix problems. Blue Ruin had a tiny budget but it captures its limited scope amongst the rural setting beautifully and contrasts it with the brutality of the violence that the characters inflict on one another. Hold the Dark is so ambitious that it’s stretching out the structure that makes Saulnier’s work hold together so tightly.

Obviously, this is a major shift in style for Saulnier. I’m glad he’s taking massive risks and trying to tell a different story. I’m also excited to see what kinds of films he turns to next after this. For fans of his work, I would imagine that Hold the Dark won’t rank amongst the stronger pieces of his filmography but I would suggest any fans of his seek this out. It definitely has its moments even if they are more muted and distant than his other films.

Positives

+ Dour Tone + Ambitious Story

Negatives

- Unengaging Story - Visually Flat Cinematography

The Bottom Line

Hold the Dark is a movie that fans of Jeremy Saulnier should seek out to completely see his filmography but it's not a film the layman would find much enjoyment in without context to his prior filmography.

 

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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