Horror Review: Hold the Dark (dir. by Jeremy Saulnier)


Hold the Dark

Jeremy Saulnier, writer and director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, invites the brave and the curious to experience his latest creation steeped in the dark, foreboding Alaskan wilderness with a hint of the supernatural and folklore mysticism.

One could never accuse Saulnier of being timid when it comes to on-screen violence. While there’s countless other filmmakers who can and have put on the screen much more dynamic and violent sequences, Saulnier is more of the Peckinpah school of film violence instead of the Michael Bay. His films portray violence at its most unglamorous. His study of the sort of violent means man can inflict on another man are neither titillating or exploitative.

He sees man’s tendency towards violence as primal and something inherent in every man with the veneer of civilization the only thing holding it back. Man, in how Saulnier sees him, is not a civilized species but one playing at one and who feels more at home practicing such violent means.

Whether it’s as an itinerant caught up in an old school blood feud or a hardcore punk band fighting to stay alive against some Northwest backswood Neo-nazi skinheads. They all dig down deep to find that inner primal self that revels in the bloodletting even when they try to hold on to that small slice of civilized behavior they’ve been taught was necessary to survive.

With Hold the Dark, Jeremy Saulnier veers away from the much more straightforward narrative of his last two films and more like an ambiguous campfire tale that may seem obtuse for some. The very ambiguous nature of the plot will definitely confound some viewers who prefer their thrillers to be easy to follow with well-defined roles of protagonist and antagonist. While Hold the Dark veers from that very linear narrative focus of Saulnier’s last two films, it does share those films study of the blurred lines of who is good and who is bad.

The film starts off with retired naturalist Russell Core (played by Jeffrey Wright) being summoned by grieving mother Medora Slone living in a remote village in the northern reaches of Alaska. She’s just lost her young son to what she says are a pack of wolves who have also taken two other children prior to her own. She knows that he is also a wolf expert and has hunted and put down wolves in his past. She wants the animals who killed her son found and killed in order to have an answer and closure for her husband who is currently deployed in Iraq.

From the moment Russell arrives in Medora’s village of Keelut, Alaska the film slowly,  but surely moves from being a man-vs-nature story to something that’s more a dark fairytale whose ending will definitely not be happily ever after. This is where Hold the Dark will either grab a viewer and tell them to just hold on and experience the violent, albeit sometimes confusing, happenings in this grim and dark corner of the world or they will fail to hold on and remain confused to what’s transpiring. Wanting to know whats going on in concrete, by-the-numbers facts and story beats.

Like Saulnier’s previous two films, Hold the Dark doesn’t shy away from showing how brutal man can be when it comes to inflicting pain and damage on another human being. The violence comes sudden, brutal and horrifically efficient in how a body can fall apart.

The screenplay, this time written solely by fellow collaborator Macon Blair, does bring some very interesting questions as to whether violence (or darkness) is inherent in man that is held at bay by the “light” of civilization or is it something that is learned, picked up like disease and passed on from generation to generation. Is violence a natural cycle that is just part of what makes humanity human or is it one that can be broken and left behind and cured of. These are some questions that sometimes has no easy answer and that lends the film’s obtuseness that may frustrate some viewers. Yet, it’s the film’s very ambiguousness that allows the viewer to marinate on the questions and ideas proposed. Whether there’s an answer to these questions will be up to the viewer.

Where the film’s story may frustate, the performances by the cast is excellent from start to finish. Whether it’s Jeffrey Wright’s Russel Core who is the stand-in for the viewer and one who also shares some of the viewers befuddlement at the situation he has found himself in but unable to break free from. Then there are Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgard playing the Slone’s. One the grieving mother and the other the husband away at war whose reaction to news of his son’s death pushes the film’s narrative from a whodunit and straight into horror territory (some would say slasher film trope with creepy mask included).

Hold the Dark may not be a straight progression from what Jeremy Saulnier has done before with Blue Ruin and Green Room, but it is one that shares similar themes and ideas. It’s a film that allows for Saulnier to dabble in the more esoteric but nonetheless still keep his signature style as an auteur of raw, primal violence. There’s nothing light or hopeful in this latest dark fairytale from Jeremy Saulnier, but then again fairytales were never happy and hopeful to begin with, but tales to try and explain the encroaching darkness and something to help one hold it at bay.

A Movie A Day #208: War Party (1988, directed by Franc Roddam)


On the hundredth year anniversary of a battle between the U.S. Calvary and the Blackfeet Indians, the residents of small Montana town decide to reenact the battle and hopefully bring in some tourist dollars.  The white mayor (Bill McKinny) and the sheriff (Jerry Hardin) both think that it is a great idea.  Even the local Indian leader, Ben Cowkiller (Dennis Banks, in real-life a founder and leader of the American Indian Movement), thinks that it will be a worthwhile for the Indians to participate.  The Calvary’s guns will be full of blanks.  The Indians will play dead.  However, as the result of a bar brawl the previous night, one of the local rednecks, Calvin Morrisey (Kevyn Major Howard), shows up with a gun full of bullets.  After he shoots one of the Indians, Calvin ends up with a tomahawk buried in his head.  Three Indian teenagers, Warren (Tim Sampson), Skitty (Kevin Dillon), and Sonny (Billy Wirth), flee into the wilderness.  Thirsty for revenge, a white posse heads off in pursuit.

War Party is an underrated and surprisingly violent movie.   Franc Roddam brings the same sensitivity to his portrayal of alienated Indians that he brought to portraying alienated Mods in Quadrophenia.  Though, at first, Kevin Dillon seems miscast as an Indian, he, Wirth, and Sampson all give good performances, as does Dennis Banks.  The movie is often stolen by M. Emmett Walsh and Rodney A. Grant, playing renowned trackers who are brought in to help the posse chase down the three youths.  That Grant’s character is a member of the Crow adds a whole extra layer of meaning to his role. Even though the setup often feels contrived and heavy-handed and anyone watching should be able to easily guess how the movie is going to end, War Party still packs a punch.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #89: Legends of the Fall (dir by Ed Zwick)


LegendsoffallposterWhen I first started to watch the 1994 film Legends of the Fall on Encore, I was a little bit concerned when I discovered that it was directed by Ed Zwick.  After all, Zwick also directed Love and Other Drugs, which is one of the worst and most insulting films of all time.  In fact, I nearly stopped watching when I saw Zwick’s name.  But, largely because I want to finish up this series of melodramatic film reviews at some point in the near future, I decided to go ahead and watch the film.

And it turned out that Legends of the Fall is not a bad film.  I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had seen it in a movie theater as opposed to on television but, considering that it was directed by Ed Zwick, Legends of the Fall is definitely watchable.  If nothing else, it’s better than Love and Other Drugs.

Legends of the Fall tells the story of the Ludlows, a family that lives on a Montana ranch at the start of the 2oth Century.  Starting with the final days of the Indian wars and proceeding through World War I and prohibition, Legends of the Fall covers a lot of historical events but does so in a very Hollywood way, which is to say that all of the main characters dress like they’re from the past but they all have very modern social attitudes.  In this case, Col. William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) may be a wealthy white military veteran but he’s also totally pro-Native American.  And, of course, all the local Native Americans love him, despite the fact that he’s a representative of the institutions that have destroyed their way of life.

Anyway, Col. Ludlow has three sons.  The oldest, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), is serious and responsible. The youngest, Samuel (Henry Thomas), is naive and idealistic.  And the middle child is Tristan (Brad Pitt), who is wild and rebellious and looks like Brad Pitt.  You have to wonder how the same gene pool could produce both Aidan Quinn and Brad Pitt.

As the film begins, Samuel has returned from studying at Harvard.  With him is his fiancée, Susannah (Julia Ormond, who has really pretty hair in this movie).  Though she loves Samuel, Susannah finds herself attracted to Tristan, largely because Tristan looks like Brad Pitt.  Tristan is also attracted to Susannah but he would never betray his younger brother.  In fact, when Samuel announces that he’s enlisted in the Canadian army so that he can fight in World War I, Tristan and Alfred soon do the exact same thing.

War is Hell, which is something that Samuel discovers when he’s gunned down by a bunch of German soldiers.  Tristan responds by cutting Samuel’s heart out of his body and sending it back to Montana.  He then proceeds to go a little crazy and when we next see Tristan, he’s uniform is decorated with the scalps of dead Germans.

Meanwhile, Alfred has been wounded in battle and is sent back to Montana.  Eventually, he ends up married to Susannah.  And then Tristan comes back home and…

Well, a lot of stuff happens after Tristan returns.  In fact, you could even argue that too much happens.  Zwick obviously set out to try to make Legends of the Fall into an old school Hollywood epic but far too often, it seems like he’s mostly just copying scenes from other films.  There’s a hollowness at the center of Legends of the Fall and the end result is a film that’s visually gorgeous and thematically shallow.

And yet, you should never underestimate the importance of looking good.  Legends of the Fall is a beautiful film to look at and so is Brad Pitt.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that Brad gives a particularly good performance here because, to be honest, Tristan is such an idealized character that I doubt anyone could really make him believable.  But the Brad Pitt of 1994 looked so good and had such a strong screen presence that it didn’t matter that he wasn’t as good an actor as the Brad Pitt of 2015.  Legends of The Fall is one of those movies that can get by on pure charisma and fortunately, Brad Pitt is enough of a movie star to make the film work.

Legends of the Fall is not a great film but it’s still not a bad way to waste 120 minutes.  (Of course, the film itself lasts 133 minutes but still…)