“Hold the Dark” is a perfectly adequate film made by an especially talented director, Jeremy Saulnier. Alternately pulse-racing and somnambulant, it’s a thriller that starts strong before running out of gas.
It begins in the Alaskan wilderness, where three children have recently been killed. The locals suspect the culprit is a pack of vicious wolves. Medora Slone (Riley Keough) has a similar hunch after the disappearance of her son, Bailey (Beckam Crawford).
Enraged and scared, she enlists author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) to fly cross-country and help track down her missing child. Russell has experience with locating (and terminating) wolves. His acclaimed book details his grisly entanglements.
There’s more: Once Russell arrives in Alaska, Medora explains her situation: That she and her boy were left alone while her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) fought in the Middle East. Most importantly, she admits to Russell that Vernon has yet to be informed about Bailey, and that she wants to find her child before he returns home.
Written by Macon Blair, based on the novel by William Giraldi, the dialogue in these early moments are effective. Wright and Keough are cryptic enough to create curiosity without alienating. Blair, as he did with his film “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” knows how to reel in an audience. The writing is clever but not cloying; you believe that Medora is deeply isolated in this cold, icy land where sunshine is scarce.
Surrounded by darkness, Russell begins searching for the boy. Trudging through snow, he looks for footprints. He speaks to the locals. One woman in particular is skeptical of Medora. “That girl knows evil,” she warns Russell. The line quickly becomes a bad omen. Suffice it to say that Saulnier makes a tonal shift in which you no longer feel sympathetic for Medora. The erosion of empathy comes suddenly — it’s a jagged pivot, and one from which the film never recovers.
As “Hold the Dark” continues to unfold, interest in the outcome wanes. Russell and local officer Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) find themselves on a two-pronged adventure, looking for both the boy and Medora, who has disappeared. Randomly interspersed during this storyline is a vignette of Vernon at war. It’s a vivid and graphic sequence in which Vernon is presented as a noble (but dangerous) man, someone capable of bloodshed. We exit the dynamic as Vernon does, after a combat wound allows him to be discharged. The editing here is economical in a way that distinguishes itself from the rest of the film, so while the scene captivates, it also feels out of place.
This a common issue throughout. The script lacks the moment-to-moment fluidity of Saulnier’s previous projects “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room.” “Hold the Dark” marks the first time Saulnier has directed but not written, and the disconnect is felt.
Blair does what he can with the source material, but the longer the movie goes on, the more characters and subplots appear tacked on haphazardly. A recurring beat in the film goes like this: a central character (either Russell, Donald or Vernon) enters a foreign environment with people and places we’re seeing for the first time. Out of the gate there’s some dialogue; some tidbits are warmer and funnier than others. Then, eventually, after we’ve spent the requisite time in an interaction, someone is nixed. Violence is how the film manages to leapfrog from one beat to the next, but the same gruesome resolution gets tiring.
There’s a lack of emotional complexity to these people. Language can be sparse and characters can be laconic. Less is often more, and yet “Hold the Dark” offers less than “less,” until ultimately you’re watching a collection of undeveloped humans battling for reasons that were probably more pronounced on the page than on screen.
The composition of these action sequences are unquestionably above average. Shot by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (“A Hijacking,” “Lean on Pete”), there’s an impressive amount of craftsmanship throughout. In fact, before transitioning into directing, Saulnier worked primarily as a DP. His obsessive attention to detail carries over in a refined color palette of blues and grays. The low lighting, both through shadows and campfires, has clearly been considered. There’s not a lack of care in “Hold the Dark”; both Jønck and Saulnier are skilled technicians who know where to put the camera. It’s what happens once the camera starts rolling.
The command of energy and tone of “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” is missing here. Although the actors are all unequivocally gifted, no one shines. Perhaps it’s Giraldi’s book, but the characters come across as detached. The argument could be made that the performances were designed that way, that their collective reticence is a reaction to their hostile surroundings. But that sounds more like a defense than a movie.