(Screened at Fantastic Fest; now streaming on Netflix)
Continuing the Wind River cycle of movies about outsiders going to cold, sad Indian reservations to investigate tragedies, here’s Hold the Dark, another brutally chilling drama from Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier. Adapted by Saulnier’s Blue Ruin star Macon Blair from William Giraldi’s novel, it stars Jeffrey Wright as Russell Core, a wildlife expert who’s summoned to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut by the pleadings of a woman, Medora Slone (Riley Keough), whose young son was taken by wolves. It’s the third child taken from this village in recent months, and Medora wants Core to find and kill the lupine offenders.
We would seem to have established a Jaws scenario here (underscored by Medora telling Core, “You’re gonna need better boots”), but it only begins as the story of an expert brought in to slay a beast before veering into other territory. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan (it’s late 2004), Medora’s soldier husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), is introduced in a way that sums up his character: He sees a fellow soldier raping a woman and violently stops him … but he doesn’t exactly hurry. Vernon himself is soon wounded and sent home, just in time to learn what has befallen his son. His reaction to that news, and to what has come out since then as the result of Core’s investigation in the woods and in the village, is, uh, problematic.
What follows is a moody procedural punctuated by sudden bursts of shocking violence, the graphic consequences of which Saulnier does not ignore. Vernon’s Indian friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), whose daughter was a previous wolf victim, hates the police for their indifference, adding his anger to Vernon’s. James Badge Dale plays a police officer who tries to stop the violence, and who has the unenviable task of delivering a line that starts, “Cheeon, I know wolves took your girl…” which is a terrible thing to have to bring up.
The performances are strong, especially Wright as the aging, wheezing naturalist, and the story takes unexpected and fascinating turns, including some dabbling in Native American mysticism. It doesn’t come together well enough in the end to be an unqualified success, but it’s a bracing mood piece with compelling characters in a palpably, cinematically bleak setting.