'Hold The Dark' Review: Jeremy Saulnier Delivers An Icy Cold Work Of Existential Dread [TIFF]

With Hold the DarkGreen Room director Jeremy Saulnier crafts a bleak, unforgiving film with an ever-increasing body count. Shot through with menace and unapologetically nasty, Hold the Dark is bound to horrify some viewers to the point of disengagement.

Call it No Country for Cold Men. Jeremy Saulnier's Hold the Dark is a chilly, unsettling a film loaded with death and dread. Like a Cormac McCarthy novel spliced with Joe Carnahan's The GreyHold the Dark is a story about quiet people engaged in terrible, violent deeds while pushing up against the harsh elements. It's one of the most unpleasant films you'll see all year. It's also a must-see.

A mostly faithful adaptation of the novel by William Giraldi, Hold the Dark begins with an invitation to the end of the world. Wolf expert Russell Core (a wonderfully weary Jefferey Wright) is summoned to an extremely remote Alaskan village by Medora Sloane (Riley Keough). Medora's child Bailey has been snatched up by wolves from the mountains, and she wants Core to hunt and kill the wolf before her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), returns home from the war. Core agrees, although he has a respect for wolves that makes him averse to killing them.

Core finds Alaska to be a hostile place. The snow-smothered landscape is hard to survive, and Medora seems to have been driven mad by all that wintry darkness long before her son disappeared. She's a strange, enigmatic woman with a flat, monotone voice, and while her behavior could easily be chalked up to grief, there's something else going on here. Something's very, very wrong, and as the impenetrable night descends, Core finds himself perplexed at what he's witnessing.

The next day, he heads out into the mountains looking for wolves. When he returns to her home, Medora has vanished – setting off a chain of events that racks up an alarming body count. Vernon returns from the dry hot desert to the frigid Alaskan landscape, and, overcome by grief for his son, sets off on an extremely bloody path.

Hold the Dark has more tricks up its sleeve, but to reveal them here would do the film a disservice. The twists aren't what makes the film special, however. Instead, it's Saulnier's commitment to unflinching, unrelenting darkness. Evil courses through this film – an unnamable, unstoppable evil without a face or form. As Hold the Dark unfolds, Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair – who appeared in Saulnier's Blue Ruin and Green Room, and has a part here as well – craft intertwining narratives. One is focused on Core as he tries to make sense of the non-stop violence he finds himself thrust into. The other is devoted to Vernon as he stalks across the landscape, staining the snow red with his actions.

While not as immediately magnetic as Saulnier's Blue Ruin and Green RoomHold the Dark is another attention-grabbing entry in the filmmaker's dark and twisted oeuvre. Like Green RoomHold the Dark isn't classified as a horror film, but there's horror running all through this thing. A ominous, dreadful atmosphere pervades; the unshakable sense that the world the characters inhabit has gone mad and blood hungry. The icy atmosphere seeps into your bones, chilling you to the core.

It doesn't all entirely click, though. Some of the dialogue – which works so well in the novel – comes across as flat and rushed here, and in some cases, inaudible. Lines that should have a profound impact go by the wayside as they're mumbled out of certain actor's mouths. Hold the Dark is also so unrelentingly frosty that it may turn some audiences off completely – there's nothing warm here to grab hold to; it is an almost entirely hopeless movie, in every sense of the word.

Wright anchors it all as the perpetually tired Core – a man who relates more to wild animals than he does human beings. Skarsgård is suitably imposing as the revenge-driven Vernon, towering over most of the cast and fixing an intense stare at everyone and everything in his path. James Badge Dale makes an impression as well as the local lawman who wants to avoid bloodshed, but can't.

Saulnier and Blair are committed to keeping Hold the Dark inscrutable. There are no easy answers here, or really answers at all, and yet that works in the film's favor. The unknowability of all this death serves to make the movie all the more unsettling. The god of this movie is a cold, indifferent one – a being content to sit back and let humanity be thrown to the wolves. As Hold the Dark draws to a disturbing conclusion, the tiniest shimmer of light begins to creep in. But you won't find comfort there. Instead, you'll tense up, wondering how soon that light will be completely snuffed out.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10