Some filmmakers excel in telling stories; Jeremy Saulnier is better at setting moods. Oh, his movies have narratives: man wants revenge recently-released-from-prison killer of his family (Blue Ruin); punk rock band must get out of neo-Nazi stronghold or die tryin’ (Green Room). But what you tend to remember more than the A-to-B particulars of this 42-year-old Virginia native’s thrillers are the vibes that he marinates his tales of murder and mayhem and vengeance in — all variations of a sort of sickened, curdled sense of dread. He’s also remarkably good at staging moments, and Hold the Dark, his adaptation of William Giraldi’s blood-snow-and-wolves novel, has a handful of indelible ones. Weeks from now, you may end up racking your brain regarding specific plot points, hard-left pivots and some seriously twisted turns. But you’ll find yourself unable to shake the sight of what a well-shot arrow does to a jugular vein, or the image of a backlit man perched on a ledge and wearing a primitive lupine mask, or the sensation of watching a nightmare unfold before your eyes as things go from bad to underbelly-of-the-beast worse.
We don’t want to damn Dark with faint praise — it’s still an extraordinary high-pulp potboiler, one that mixes elements of indigenous mysticism, Greek tragedy and rural revenge flicks, along with a genuinely showstopping centerpiece (we’ll get to that in a second). And if this take on the evil that folks do isn’t quite as efficient or airtight as those aforementioned previous works, it’s mainly because Saulnier has set his own bar at nosebleed-level when it comes to crafting this type of thing. There are few current filmmakers doing what he does this well.
And what he does here is seed the ground for a winter harvest of madness. A boy has gone missing in a small village in Alaska; there’s been an epidemic of wolves snatching local kids. His mother, Medora (Riley Keough), summons a writer and retired expert on the creatures named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) to find the animal and kill it. He reluctantly accepts the gig, tracking the pack in the wild. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in the desert — it could be Iraq or Afghanistan; we’re purposefully never told — a solider (Alexander Skarsgard) catches a bullet in the neck from a sniper. The man, Vernon Sloane, is the child’s father. He returns home to mourn and finds out that Mom has gone missing (we suggest you take another look at the mother’s name and see if it resembles any famous theatrical heroines of the past). At which point this accomplished killer of men, his friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), Core and the local sheriff (James Badge Dale) all seem to be heading toward a date with destiny.
Suddenly, what seemed like a man-vs-nature survivalist tale — “Hey, it’s the guy from Westworld fightin’ wild wolves!” — morphs into something that’s part Arctic Noir and part violent art-horror. Saulnier knows how to use the frame to heighten tension, to drop things in the background that suddenly demand your attention, to help turn a casual aside (“Those my boots?”) into a small piece of a big-picture fatalistic puzzle and to make the score underline every bit of doom around the corner. He may be a mood-channeler, but he knows how to assemble the tools of moviemaking to play audiences like cellos. For the first hour or so, you constantly feel the ground shifting underneath you, as lost in the dark as Core is but, like our hapless hero, knowing a bad wind is blowing our way. Which brings us to the set piece.
The cops need to find Vernon, who’s on the hunt. They head to Cheeon’s house to question him. Russell also happens to be nearby, having stumbled across a corpse. A conversation occurs on the porch, one that suggests things are not going to end quietly. In what might constitute a spoiler, a machine gun comes into play. And to call what follows “a shoot-out” is a bit like saying Gene Kelly splashing around in the rain is a “musical number” — it’s technically correct but severely underplays the impact of watching the sequence. This is where everything, from the direction to screenwriter Macon Blair’s facility for dialogue to the actors (Badge Dale and Black Antelope turn the back-and-forth into verbal game of chicken) to Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s cinematography to Julia Bloch’s precise, razor-sharp editing, gets marshaled into creating something that’s genuinely unforgettable. It’s an action sequence that knows when to pump the adrenaline and when to make you feel the pain of human bodies being hurt.
If Hold the Dark peaks somewhat at that point, it’s only because the whole thing is such a virtuoso act — the film uses it as a bit of a palette cleanser before getting back to the especially nasty business of tying up some loose ends. There are more revelations and surprises as this disturbing piece of work slouches towards its rough resolution, some of which feel surprising and others which feel inevitable in the ways that myths do. (Note to filmmakers: cast Wright in everything. The man does more with a pause then others do with a soliloquy and he goes a long way towards making the third act hold together.) Having gone from doing a film almost totally set in a claustrophobic neo-Nazi bunker, Saulnier pulled a 180-degree turn and made an ambitious B movie set in agoraphobe-unfriendly, wide-open expanse of nature. The snowy land his characters tread has a lot of history soaking in its soil, the film reminds us — and a lot of blood, curses and Freudian insanity as well. You can only hold back the darkness for so long.