Jeremy Saulnier’s “Hold the Dark” dropped on Netflix this past week with no fanfare to speak of. Unless you are a Saulnier fan, you’d have no idea that a devastating Alaskan film noir had appeared on the platform. As of the morning of Sept. 28, it wasn’t even in Netflix’s New Arrivals section. I had to search for it, and part of me is disappointed that I did.
“Hold the Dark” features the eternally undervalued Jeffrey Wright as an aging wildlife nonfiction author. He has killed a wolf; it felt bad. A desperate mother (an inscrutable Riley Keough) urges him to come out to Kelut, Alaska to track down the wolves that took her son, one of several children who have gone missing in the past few cold, dark, seemingly interminable months.
Slow and deliberate, the film builds like last year’s frozen mystery “Wind River,” and reaches explosive twists that are just as gut-wrenching with sequences that top the brutality of Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut.
Unlike Sheridan’s “Wind River,” however, “Hold the Dark” is muddled, and possibly meaningless. The lack of comprehension might be part of the point, but that makes the film more of an exercise than a fulfilling experience. Though Saulnier’s hand is more elegant, the script (adapted by Macon Blair, from a novel by William Girardi) lacks Sheridan’s heart.
The film also lacks the tightness of Saulnier’s previous films, “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room.” “Blue Ruin” is a strict and moving revenge tragedy. “Green Room” is a seething, best-of-the-year, vital, claustrophobic thriller. “Hold the Dark” sprawls in comparison, and though Saulnier has no problem with the wide-open landscapes, the story flounders into nothingness.
There’s simultaneously too much story and not enough. Details don’t connect, sequences are drawn out, and character motivations are inexplicable. Saulnier provides even more shocking violence than before, but that doesn’t make the movie a better one.
Though “Hold the Dark” is beautifully shot and emotionally enthralling, I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. Fans of dark thrillers will find something to admire, but I don’t know that anyone will find something to enjoy. Watch “Green Room” again instead.