Hold the Dark review: A chillingly complex Netflix thriller

Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach
Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach /

From the director of Green Room, the film adaptation of the William Giraldi novel, Hold the Dark, comes to Netflix and leaves its mark as a bleak and brutal descent into evil.

There’s something about a crime story being set in a snowy and freezing setting that adds disturbing layers to the average thriller. Instead of being provided comfort by the rays of hopeful sunshine smiling down on our characters, we’re left with the grey and barren setting of an Alaskan village that only serves as the backdrop for an equally grey and uncomfortable story about missing children and the wild nature of humanity’s darkness within. That is Jeremy Saulnier’s Netflix crime drama, Hold the Dark, in a nutshell.

Jeremy Saulnier has explored similar concepts of evil and the bleak truth of fate in his previous film, Green Room, back in 2016. That film saw a group of aspiring rockers coming into blows with a group of neo-Nazis, a challenge that the group is simply not ready to tackle, which proves to be their ultimate undoing. Similarly, Hold the Dark also explores the idea of intruding upon something that may not, and maybe SHOULD not be fully understood and explained.

Better left unsaid

From the William Giraldi novel of the same name, Hold the Dark tells the slow and chilling story of a woman named Medora Slone (Riley Keough) who writes to a writer/wolf expert named Russell (Jeffrey Wright), claiming that her son, along with two other children, were taken by the wolves that roam the snowy mountainside near the village. When Russell comes to investigates, he instead finds himself embroiled in a heated battle of wits and lifestyles between the Alaskan locals and the police force, uncovering something much darker than he could’ve ever hoped for.

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Hold the Dark tells this story with a strong degree of patience, naturally letting information bleed out as we try to figure out exactly what’s going on, a method which still may not grant total and complete answers upon finishing the film. Saulnier’s cold crime drama is unlike anything I’ve personally ever seen him tackle. Though the film mostly relies on realism to depict its brutal and uncompromising setting, Saulnier tells the story with a surreal tone to his directing voice. The film paces itself akin to a slow-moving nightmare, gradually getting more disturbing and hard to believe as it progresses.

Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach
Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach /

The film is so utterly dreary and mysterious that it would not be a big surprise to see a slew of negative reviews commenting on the film’s supposed “pretentiousness” and lack of easy answers. Hold the Dark is a surreal take on the savage nature of human beings, while also using realism to explore the complexities of the human condition.

It is NOT a popcorn thriller and it honestly benefits artistically from that. Here, we get Saulnier unsupervised, gradually pulling away the layers of the compelling characters to unveil the darkness that some believe lies within us all.


In fact, you could say that a good portion of the characters teeters on the edge of being a “human being” in a sense. Hold the Dark contains characters that behave like something closer to wolves than humans, the strongest example being Riley Keough’s character, Medora Slone. From the start of the film, Medora’s thousand-yard gaze haunts the screen, as she moves and talks with the utmost restraint, almost as if she’s a wolf restraining itself from attacking another animal.

She continues this behavior when Russell, Jeffrey Wright’s character, arrives at her house in order to help her find the wolves that took her son. She will often pause in the middle of conversation to simply stare at Russell and her cold gaze never seems to let up, following Russell everywhere he goes and observing everything he says.

Keough’s performance could hardly be classified as emotional, which might turn some viewers off. Yet her commitment to this stagnant and emotionally lacking performance is admirable, given some of the disturbing scenes she is a part of in this film.

Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach
Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach /

Also invading Hold the Dark is the equally chilling and calculated performance of Alexander Skarsgard as Vernon, Medora’s husband who has just come back from the war to discover the grim reality of their son’s disappearance. Vernon, much like Medora, is wolf-like in his mannerisms, observing people and places close to him with a subtle intensity brought to life by Skarsgard’s sheer intimidation factor.

Medora and Vernon’s willingness to tap into their feral nature brings the story to disturbing new levels, particularly in Vernon’s case. Even in his introduction, Vernon is shown to be a cold man that is willing to do horrible things to others in order to save a life or just out of pure malice.

Skarsgard does not make the level of morality that Vernon possesses out to be obvious or even justifiable for the various grim actions he takes as the film goes on. It’s clear that Hold the Dark is less keen on straight answers and more on studying the very nature of people so willing to let themselves be consumed by their dark nature.

Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach
Hold the Dark, Netflix David Bukach /

The study of these behaviors is something that Russell knows all too well, having spent his life studying wolves and identifying with them to the point where he considers it a crime to even kill them. His beliefs are put to the test as he encounters this crime case, learning more about wolves than he ever could from his previous experiences.

Jeffrey Wright brings an honesty to Russell that makes his somewhat thin backstory all the more compelling and easy to follow along. It’s easy to bond with Russell as he faces off against wolves or risks his life to save others in need in the middle of a bloody gunfight. Brave, but deeply flawed in his understanding of what is happening, Russell may not be the traditional hero we see in crime thrillers, but he is easily one of the most interesting.

At over two hours in length, Hold the Dark might test your patience and its slow pace may not help with that. Once you cut out the fat of the film (this could’ve easily been around an hour and forty minutes), we are left with a disturbing and complex crime drama that is bound to leave you thinking about the evil nature of human beings long after you remove this from your Netflix watchlist.

From a personal experience, my father and I had a pretty interesting discussion on the film after it was over. He repeatedly claimed that he viewed the film as a cautionary tale of what happens when someone intrudes on a way of life that is not easy to understand, which is hard to deny after watching Hold the Dark.

It very much reminds me of Taylor Sheridan’s similar snowy crime drama, Wind River, which also takes place at an under-looked portion of America and also explores the differences between the locals and outsiders. Here, Jeremy Saulnier takes it a step further by deconstructing the ideas behind the locals’ beliefs and lifestyles, stripping them down to the dark but morally complex core.

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So to anyone looking to watch this on Netflix, be warned: it is not an easy watch at all. Hold the Dark may take your feelings into consideration, but it does not hold back in its brutal presentation. Despite its bleak atmosphere, this film has traces of hope scattered throughout, which may make the experience a lot less depressing after watching. But that still doesn’t take away the various graphic scenes in this unrelenting crime story. Hold the Dark is not fun, but in my opinion, it is an essential viewing experience.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Hold the Dark is available to stream on Netflix right now.