Hold the Dark is a surprising film from Blue Ruin and Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier, both in how the story unfolds, and how dull the whole affair is.
Set in a remote part of Alaska in 2004, Hold the Dark centers on a wolf expert (Russell) who is invited to an Alaskan village by a woman named Medora, whose son Bailey has been taken by a wolf. Meanwhile, her husband (Vernon) is fighting in Iraq and has no idea what's happening back home. The film was apparently pitched as "Snow Country For Old Men," and while its ambitions are obvious, its execution leaves a lot to be desired. It's a very grim, mirthless film that unfolds slowly, with occasional bursts of explosive on-screen violence that Jeremy Saulnier has a unique knack for.
The other thing Saulnier has a knack for is his laser-focused storytelling that plunges unsuspecting characters into inexorably bad situations that they are constantly working toward getting out of. You wouldn't know that from watching Hold the Dark, which has almost none of this sharp focus. While the film does go in interesting directions, the story is completely aimless and doesn't really add up to anything, making the 120-minute runtime feel painfully slow.
There are a few very good moments sprinkled in, usually when violent shit happens on screen. Saulnier really does have a talent for making on-screen violence *feel* violent, both with regard to the execution of it and the crafting of the scene around it. The protagonists of Blue Ruin and Green Room were violently working their way toward their goal, making it a necessary component to the story. Here, violence just sorta explodes around Russell as it gets carried out by everyone else, and while it's well-directed, it doesn't have that extra purpose-driven oomph that this kinda thing calls for.
While I was happy to see Jeffrey Wright in a leading role, he doesn't make a very compelling case for himself as a leading man here. He doesn't wring a whole lot of anything out of the role, which didn't give him much to wring out in the first place. He doesn't belong in this town any more than he belongs in the film, and by a certain point, his contributions to the story and plot become questionable at best. Riley Keogh and Alexander Skarsgaard command a good presence when they're on screen. Their characters are interesting and do some interesting things, but they feel undercooked. Julian Black Antelope's character of Cheeon was probably their best hope for a No Country-level character, but he was probably the most undercooked relative to potential coolness. Really, 'undercooked' could apply to the entire script, which doesn't help when it's trying to deliver “Snow Country for Old Men.”
There are some interesting thematics at work with regard to family, tribalism, and animal vs. human nature, but it doesn't really elicit more than a shrug thanks to the disappointing nature of everything else. I don't want to say I hated this film, but I was pretty disappointed by it. It had really good intentions, and there are some great moments here and there, but on top of being not that great, it also doesn't feel genuine. It's the Canal St. version of No Country. You may get something close, but it's still a knockoff at its core.