Watching Hold the Dark isn’t quite as interesting as ruminating on it afterwards, which is probably both a critique and a compliment. A werewolf movie that isn’t a werewolf movie, but really kind of is, Hold the Dark avoids easy categorization, sometimes to a fault.
The movie mostly takes place in a small Alaskan village, where a young mother (Riley Keough) believes her son has been taken by wolves. With her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) fighting in Iraq and her fellow villagers unwilling to help, she contacts naturalist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who has written a book about the year he spent with wolves in the wild. She hopes Core can find her son—and kill the perpetrator if the boy is no longer alive.
To say Hold the Dark is a mood piece might be an understatement. Director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) makes thrillers that are at once visceral and contemplative, containing bursts of gore and long passages of ruefulness. While there is plenty of blood here—an extended shootout sequence at the film’s center is shockingly grisly—scenes of grim contemplation tend to dominate. Keough, Skarsgard, and Wright give equally muted, miserable performances; thank goodness for James Badge Dale, whose tender sheriff brings just the tiniest bit of warmth to the screen.
Working with cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (Lean on Pete) and filming in Alberta, Canada, Saulnier excels at carefully composed images full of beauty, mystery, and frightening power: a bison blocking the road, an icy mountain range, a pack of wolves poised on a ridge. Lighting, too, is key, as the film’s title implies. The 2007 vampire thriller 30 Days of Night also made a plot device of Alaska’s limited sunlight, to far less effect (it offers little more than gore). Here, the darkness—always being pushed back by a fireplace or dingy lamp—is a malevolent presence, a felt force.
Perhaps the movie keeps us a bit too much in the dark. There are some narrative gaps and frustratingly open questions. This is what you’ll spend time trying to answer when the film is over. In retrospect, Hold the Dark feels like a limited-run series that has been squished into a theatrical feature. But some of the omissions give the movie a provocative shading. We’ve seen werewolf flicks where the beast is easily identified and hunted. This takes that familiar narrative and asks us to consider it from another angle, one where savagery is as much the natural order as it is a supernatural curse.