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

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Did you not just hand over a chicken to someone?

The Father (2020) (SPOILERS) I was in no great rush to see The Father , expecting it to be it to be something of an ordeal in the manner of that lavishly overpraised euthanasia-fest Amour. As with the previous Oscars, though, the Best Picture nominee I saw last turned out to be the best of the bunch. In that case, Parasite , its very title beckoning the psychic global warfare sprouting shoots around it, would win the top prize. The Father , in a year of disappointing nominees, had to settle for Best Actor. Ant’s good, naturally, but I was most impressed with the unpandering manner in which Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton approached material that might easily render one highly unstuck.