Not Quite Horror is back from the dead. After resting for a bit in its kind-of creepy but still-normal-enough-to-pass-as-regular crypt, our biweekly series returns. In each installment, Joey Keogh will argue why a chosen film not generally classified as horror actually exhibits many of the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Jeremy Saulnier’s Alaskan nightmare Hold The Dark.
Hold The Dark, Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the near perfect double bill of Blue Ruin and Green Room, is a slighter effort than his previous two. It’s also the filmmaker’s first adaptation, which might explain why it lacks some of the bite and edge we’ve come to expect from Saulnier. Still, this tight, tense genre exercise contains, as its title suggests, more darkness than you’d expect.
The permanently tortured Jeffrey Wright, taking a well-earned break from Westworld, is a writer and wolf expert summoned to the fictional town of Keelut, Alaska by Riley Keough’s grieving mother, whose son has apparently been taken by wolves, along with several other local children. As with the similarly themed and snowily capped Wind River, the ensuing mystery isn’t nearly as complex as any of its key players assume it to be.
Hold The Dark is a messy, sprawling adaptation but the mood is impressively somber. Wright’s impassioned central performance suggests a lifetime of suffering, particularly when it comes to his strained relationship with his adult daughter (hinted at only until the film’s final moments, which seem to offer a kind of closure). He’s tasked with quite literally carrying the film from scene to scene and does so with aplomb.
Keough does solid work, once again, as a mother with a dark secret. One key sequence finds her stripping naked and putting on a creepy wooden mask, before advancing towards Wright, whose character is sleeping on her sofa. It’s not clear in the moment whether she wants to kiss him or kill him, and that tightrope walk, for a woman the townspeople reckon “knows evil,” is expertly done.
Saulnier’s old buddy Macon Blair scripted Hold The Dark, but he also (happily) pops up in a cameo as a coke-snorting no-good type who sells out Alexander Skarsgård’s dodgy Vernon (husband of Keough’s Medora, stationed in Iraq when the story begins) and gets a knife to the head for his troubles. As with Saulnier’s previous works, there are flashes of grisly ultra-violence here that come out of nowhere and rouse the film from its snowy stupor.
In particular, a bloody shootout, which goes on for extended minutes of screen-time, is stomach-churning. We’ve become so desensitized to these kinds of displays in action and even superhero movies that they rarely sting anymore but what Saulnier crafts is truly gruesome. Even when it seems he’s dealing in Native American myth and grandiose, dark fairy-tales, the emphasis is on human cost.
That cost is felt most acutely by the grieving parents at the core of the story, but when their motives are revealed to be dodgy at best, it becomes clear Wright’s depressed author is really the one struggling to get by in this harsh clime. As with Wind River, Hold The Dark uses its stunning, isolated landscapes (the film was shot in Alberta, Canada, which doubled for Alaska) to emphasize its characters’ inner turmoil.
Although there are lulls in the action and some of the finer plot-points don’t entirely add up, Hold The Dark is an impressively dark tale of repression, desperation, and the constant struggle to be a good parent, and person, in increasingly difficult circumstances. It’s less in-your-face than Green Room, and nowhere near as ruminative as Blue Ruin, but Hold The Dark holds its own as an uneasy exercise in escalating tension with a few nasty shocks up its sleeve.