Hold The Dark (2018) - Film Review
Hold The Dark is a Netflix film, but to it’s credit, it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a film that’s decidedly not made for someone who doesn’t want to engage actively with it—it’s a film that is best enjoyed on it’s own terms. This is what makes the film so polarizing (something that’s evident in the critical reception). In my view, this is exactly what Netflix must continue doing if they desire to be taken seriously as a real space for filmmakers to create. Jeremy Saulnier’s film Blue Ruin launched his career, and he owes a lot of that to the success the film found on Netflix. Saulnier and Netflix seem like a natural pair in this regard, and even further, Hold The Dark is much more akin to Blue Ruin than Saulnier’s third film, Green Room. But the ways in which Blue Ruin, and to some extent Green Room, succeed are somewhat lost in Hold The Dark. The positive spin on this is would be to say that Hold The Dark is a more mature step for Saulnier. A film that works more with the intellectual tools in Saulnier’s kit. In this way, Hold The Dark is a rich film with dense subtext—but as it develops this way, it leaves behind moments that would make the film more conventionally watchable.
The film stars a stony, distant Jeffrey Wright who portrays a writer, caught up in an ever expanding disaster that revolves around the deaths of three children taken by wolves. What starts as something of a mystery, becomes an incredibly comprehensible thriller with shades of a revenge film— and this is really where the film struggles. Not in the execution of individual scenes, but the pace at which the plot unfolds and answers questions. The first forty minutes of the film does a great job creating questions and building a world that’s perhaps just beyond the horizon line of reality, but it creates expectations that it can’t, and doesn’t, deliver on.
Thematically, there’s so much happening in the film that it’s very worth discussion, but the narrative devices they use to create this theme have an acute lack of clarity. I can understand what Saulnier, and the writer Macon Blair are attempting to pull off, and I find it infinitely interesting, but I think that it was executed with too much confidence. So much so, that even though I enjoy what they’re communicating, I get caught up in the nuts and bolts reality of what I’m watching and can’t help but be skeptical. This matter of fact method of displaying these supernatural-esque elements just seems to convenient, and too simply executed when they have such immense gravity to the narrative. I think it’s reasonable to ask, “couldn’t this have been done better?”
At the end of the day, the reason Saulnier is so successful is because of this very objective lens through which he tells story. Blue Ruin owes much of it’s success to this understated, objective confident filmmaking. The execution of the tone and tension fills in the gaps where the audience might ask questions of a more exaggerated, dramatic film. In Hold The Dark, the dramatic elements are there, but the understated filmmaking method leaves too many questions. In other words, certain key parts of the narrative are more complex than the simple explanations, or lack thereof.
At it’s best, Hold The Dark is an incredibly interesting thematic study of community and family—this is truly where the film succeeds and it’s the main reason I think the film is worthwhile. These narrative devices that have left us with so many questions are nuanced displays of what it means to be human as opposed to what it means to just be a homo sapien primate— further, Saulnier and Blair ask if there is any difference. As much as I’ve criticized the film for it’s failures, I can’t help but admire the bold way that Blair and Saulnier decided to approach this theme. It takes guts, and a calculated understanding of the almost inevitable misunderstandings.
For me, this is what makes Hold The Dark so hard to judge. It’s a film that has flaws that are so evident they’re impossible to ignore, but it has them so boldly emblazoned on it’s face that it’s hard to hold it against the film. This makes Hold The Dark a film that will be enjoyed by cinephiles but generally maligned by those who are just looking for a good time. And to Saulnier’s credit, if you’re just looking for a great, suspenseful, intelligent thriller, he’s already made two.
First Impression: 70
Lasting Impression: 85
Technical Excellence: 60
Bret Hoy is the creator and co-editor of Monolith Medium, an award winning filmmaker, and writer.