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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror any more.

Hollow Man (2000)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven very acutely critiqued his own choices when he observed of Hollow Manit really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that… there might have been twenty directors in Hollywood who could have done that”. It isn’t such a wonder he returned to Europe, and to quality, for his subsequent films. If Memoirs of an Invisible Man failed to follow up on the mental side effects of being seen right through found in HG Wells’ novel and (especially) in James Whale’s film, all Hollow Man does is take that tack, with the consequence that the proceedings degenerate into a banal action slasher, but with a naked Bacon instead of a guy in a hockey mask.

It’s not every day you see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents – by himself.

Gemini Man (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ang Lee seems hellbent on sloughing down a technological cul-de-sac to the point of creative obscurity, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis enmired himself in the mirage of motion capture for a decade. Lee previously experimented with higher frame rates on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, to the general aversion of those who saw it in its intended form – 48, 60 or 120 fps have generally gone down like a bag of cold sick, just ask Peter Jackson – and the complete indifference of most of the remaining audience, for whom the material held little lustre. Now he pretty much repeats that trick with Gemini Man. At best, it’s merely an “okay” film – not quite the bomb its Rotten Tomatoes score suggests – which, (as I saw it) stripped of its distracting frame rate and 3D, reveals itself as just about serviceable but afflicted by several insurmountable drawbacks.

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…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I have a cow, but I hate bananas.

The Laundromat (2019)
(SPOILERS) Steven Soderbergh’s flair for cinematic mediocrity continues with this attempt at The Big Short-style topicality, taking aim at the Panama Papers but ending up with a mostly blunt satire, one eager to show how the offshore system negatively impacts the average – and also the not-so-average – person but at the expense of really digging in to how it facilitates the turning of the broader capitalist world (it is, after all based on Jake Bernstein’s Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite).

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.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

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.