I should really stop being surprised when Jeremy Saulnier surprises me. In his fourth feature, his third film that I would have to describe as pure genius, director Jeremy Saulnier once again takes a perfect script from Macon Blair and turns it into cinematic gold. Despite being based on a book, albeit one I’ve never read, HOLD THE DARK feels like the next step in the evolution of Saulnier and Blair’s storytelling legacy. The film follows a naturalist writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who answers a plea from a woman whose child has been killed but a wolf in rural Alaska. However, when he arrives he soon realizes that Mrs. Sloane (Riley Keough) has not told him the entire story.

I really don’t want to say too much more about the story considering part of the joy of it was being surprised at every plot turn. I can say Alexander Skarsgard plays Vernon Sloane, the husband injured in Fallujah returning home to find out news about his child. Sloane is somebody that doesn’t bat an eye while killing a fellow soldier he discovers engaging in untoward behavior in Iraq. He has a strong sense of justice, but it’s justice that he is willing to carry out on his own. Meanwhile, Core is stranded in Alaska doing his best to help but feeling out of his element.

HOLD THE DARK is very much a story about relationship between parents and children and feeling like the world has changed to the point where you no longer fit in it. Core has come to Alaska with a task in mind, but also to reconnect with his daughter, who refuses to return his phone calls. The help that he thought he could provide a grieving woman, possibly to make up for the lack of relationship he has with his own wife, soon proves impossible. When he refocuses his efforts to help the police, he finds himself even less prepared.

Sloane is returning to a town he grew up in after having gone to war. He no longer fits into the traditional justice of a small town where the locals have had their way of life upended by the recent arrival of progress, a progress that may include indoor plumbing but has brought police who don’t blend into the town’s idea of justice either.

And then there’s Mrs. Sloane, who, despite having lived in this town all her life, hates this place and never feels like she belongs. It’s a disconnection that the other locals warn Core about — there’s an evil inside her.

If no one seems to fit into this town, the larger statement might be no one really should fit into this landscape. The mountains and forests of Alaska a oppress every moment of the film. The onslaught of pure white snow, the shrinking hours of daylight, the difficulty of getting around, the cold air, it all adds to the feeling that this is a place that man really shouldn’t mess with. The only Justice here is the justice of nature, as embodied by the wolfpack. The location has given Saulnier an opportunity to play in giant vistas in a way his previous films have not and the cinematography (from Fantastic Fest veteran Magnus Nordenhof Jønck who shot BRIGEND) lives up to the task. With the sound design and the costuming, I couldn’t help but shiver as I watched the film. This is an inhospitable place to live and an inhospitable place to mourn. It’s easy to forgive anybody anything they do under these conditions, although that premise is certainly put to the test. In the end HOLD THE DARK leaves us with something that feels perfectly incomplete, the Justice we deserve.

HOLD THE DARK will be streaming on Netflix September 28th

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