Silence can be used as an effective tool in any film; it helps set the tone of a scene, builds tension, and can truly convey the intensity of a moment in a way that’s equally as effective as, say, violence. Both silence and violence can also be used as a crutch, of course — a gratuitous way to raise the stakes of a situation. But in Hold the Dark, director Jeremy Saulnier wields these tools with the efficacy of a well-trained soldier, waiting patiently with his weapon for the opportune moment to strike. Saulnier’s film is set in the Alaskan wilderness, where aging hunter Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is called in order to assist in bringing down a pack of wolves that have plagued a small town. As the the man investigates the disappearance of children from the town, presumed to have been slaughtered, the sense of mystery surrounding his mission deepens, and Hold the Dark becomes much more sinister than it at first seems.
Through its many twists and turns, Hold the Dark retains its anticipatory allure.
In a place where the sun’s up only five hours in a day, that’s ravaged by the harshness of the elements, it’s easy to see why optimism died-out long before children started disappearing. But Saulnier’s use of silence in establishing the atmosphere of his small town setting is deeply unsettling, with whole scenes revolving around characters quietly, cautiously exploring their surroundings. The real key to Hold the Dark‘s success, though, is its emphasis on realism — not only in its unflinching acts of violence, but in its actors’ performances. Wright’s Core, and Alexander Skarsgård‘s Iraq War vet Vernon Slone, are both imbued with a palpable weariness, but the actors are able able to locate the way their characters’ differences in experience define them. And if, at times, Saulnier can get a bit lost in his own aesthetic — directing scenes so dark and so quiet that it gets difficult to fully grasp what‘s going on — that feeling is also in keeping with Core’s experience, as he enters into a world he does not fully understand, and finds it uncompromisingly guarded from intrusion. The same mysteries that endear us and Wright’s determined hunter to this world threaten at times to hinder Hold the Dark’s narrative; the heavy focus on puzzles leaves a sense of wanting when some remain unsolved. But the suspense always beckons us forward — and through its many twists and turns, Hold the Dark retains its anticipatory allure.
You can currently stream Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark on Netflix.