Skip to main content

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Jeffrey Wright's wolf expert Core is called to the Alaskan village of Keelut by mother Medora (Riley Keough), whose son – the third child there to go missing – has been taken by wolves ("I do not expect you to find my son alive. But you could find the wolf who took him"). But Core quickly deduces that wolves weren’t responsible and opts not to take it out on the pack ("The natural order does not want revenge. What happened here is… very rare"). 


Then he finds the boy's body in cellar and Medora gone missing. We knew something wasn't quite right with Medora, on account of how she appears naked in a wolf mask – a mask to ward off evil spirits – and gets into bed with him on his first night there. And how she comes out with slightly florid (over-written?) language to describe her relationship with hubby Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), currently serving in Iraq ("I don’t have a memory he isn’t in").


Fortuitously, or perhaps not, Vernon has been injured (just after killing a soldier raping an Iraqi woman) and is sent home, where he decides to track her down himself after being told her fate ("She’ll stand trial and she’ll get the needle") and consequently killing two police officers. Why does Vernon take such an extreme course? Why does buddy Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) machine gun massacre a shed load of cops a few scenes later (other than to provide Netflix with a grandstanding set piece in the middle of their movie)? If you're looking for answers, you've come to the wrong place. 


It appears that, whatever bond Vernon and Medora have, it transcends her infanticide (if we didn't know how much Vernon loved his son, the unnecessary flashbacks lay it on). Which goes to make a certain degree of sense – a certain degree – when we consider something Saulnier and Blair elected not to divulge to us; that they're brother and sister. Would it have made the world of difference to the quality of the movie? Probably not, but there'd at least have been a layer of motivation. 


There's a degree of paralleling Vernon to the wolves Core is more familiar with tracking. Notably, he doesn't consider Core a threat (since he stays from killing him twice). Perhaps because Core didn’t kill the wolves earlier? When Core is rescued, he is told "They spared you", with the double meaning of the wolves in the area and the couple. 


But, while the movie is pregnant with supernatural import at points, it's reticent of going full-on down that route, in a manner that ends up being detrimental; the wolf mask feeling like a sub-slasher movie trope rather than an aid to the uncanny, and the suggestion that Medora is possessed by a wolf demon seems designed to be brushed aside. It's clear that the Alaskan landscape is a force shaping these characters and their paradigms, but one gradually loses any interest in what exactly these are. Occasionally, one recalls the suggestive strangeness of The Witch, or the foreboding of True Detective Season One, and the movie seems to be heading towards a climactic showdown, until it isn't. The result is that the portentousness is unearned, and where those examples had strong characterisation to keep them watchable, here the pervading feeling is of a lack of substance. 


Certainly, there’s none to be found with the blank slates of Medora and Vernon (about the most insightful thing I have to say about Skarsgård here is that the early scenes recall his breakthrough role in Generation Kill a decade ago). Wright underplays, much as he does in Westworld, and he’s an interesting actor in search of an interesting character. 


There's a scene where he has dinner with James Badge Dale's police chief and his wife, and we're suddenly gifted the feeling of meaningful interaction and character development that's entirely missing elsewhere. Dale's performance is probably the most engaging in the picture, but such is typecasting, his mere presence in a movie alerts you to a character who isn't going to make it to the end credits (it's a surprise he survives as long as he does).


Is Netflix going to be the home of talented directors who flock towards the streaming giant's promise of freedom and boundless financing, only to flounder? Mute earlier this year, and now Hold the Dark may give cause for concern (or perhaps it’s just the Skarsgård factor). Advance word on Apostle and Outlaw King has been mixed (on the other hand, both Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs have been garlanded with accolades). Saulnier recently departed True Detective Season Three before he’d completed his allotted episodes due to disagreements, so it may be that he needs to pause and retrench. Or make another movie with a colour in the title.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.