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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

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…

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.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).