It’s easy to see why audiences are having sort of an icy reaction to Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold The Dark, an oblique, austere Alaska set thriller with esoteric undertones. On a platform as diverse yet decidedly commercial as Netflix, it will take some time for the riskier, more artistic and less accessible projects to gain traction, and for the casual viewers to warm up to varied aesthetics that they often lazily dismiss in a lump sum as ‘weird.’ They’ll come around. For us who are tuned in, however, we can appreciate that these risks are being taken and that money is being spent on challenging, anti Hollywood stuff. Although not as tightly wound or succinct as Saulnier’s first two efforts (Blue Ruin and Green Room), Hold The Dark is definitely my favourite as I have an affinity for snowy settings and dark, ambiguous mysteries. Jeffrey Wright is great here as as an outdoorsman and wolf expert hired by the mother (Riley Keogh) of a child supposedly snatched by wolves to find the beasts and kill them. I won’t say much more except that things are so far from what they seem at first that you’ll truly have no inkling of where the plot is going to take you next, which is a sign of great, inspired scriptwriting. There’s an eerie edge to the whole thing, but the film’s secrets aren’t divulged willingly or at all half the time. Alexander Skarsgard is implosive and lupine himself as the boy’s haunted father, on his own freaky quest for a goal shrouded in enigma like fog swells throughout the Alaskan mountains, actually Alberta here. James Badge Dale is great as the intense local sheriff, Julian Black Antelope is a standout talent as a shady local villager involved in the central mystery, and the cast includes fine work from Savonna Spracklin, Peter McRobbie, Macon Blair, Jonathan Whitesell and Tantoo Cardinal. Playing around with genre and tone, Saulnier and cinematographer Magnus Nordendorf Jønck deserve huge props for staging a fucking volcanic firefight scene that has to be up there with the best shootout scenes of all time, it goes on for something like ten minutes, more bullets are fired than in a Rambo movie and there’s some gnarly violence. There are some spooky, intangible ideas at play here and almost none of it is made obvious.. it may leave some in WTF mode, but clearly a stylistic language is being spoken here, with some deep, disturbing things to say about nature, humanity and the dark symbiosis held over them, particularly in lonely, desolate places such as this. This won’t be everyone’s thing, but it’s stayed with me all day since I saw it last night, I’m on board with it.
Green Room has the same vicious, simplistic edge to it that director Jeremy Saulnier’s 2011 thriller Blue Ruin had, but sharpened and honed to near perfection this time around. This is one grim thriller, a claustrophobic little odyssey of desperate violence that’s thick with a sick, overwhelming atmosphere that isn’t for the faint of anything. A big part of what makes it work so well is the fact that it makes sense, in terms of scene to scene actions and character motivations. These aren’t cardboard horror protagonists darting through a predetermined rat maze of a narrative, these are real humans in a deadly situation who act accordingly, with both purpouse and realism. Atmosphere was a huge part of Blue Ruin, and now again Saulnier weaves a tense auditory cloak that puts the characters in the hot seat of danger and the audience in conniptions of suspense. It’s a situation straight out of a seething nightmare: a down and out punk band led by Anton Yelchin are on a dead end tour, severely strapped for cash and getting desperate. When a vague buddy hooks them up with a rural gig, they jump at the chance, until they find out they’re playing for a clubhouse full of angry neo nazi skinheads in a backwoods bar. Everything is going marginally well (as well as coexisting with nazis for a set could go, I suppose) until a member of their group accidentally witnesses one of these freaks brutally slaughter a girl, suddenly branding them all as witnesses. With nowhere to go, the band barricades themselves into the green room and descends into a collective panic as the reality of their situation sets in. Outside, an armada of furious Aryan psychopaths prepares to siege the bar and kill them, led by the clubhouse owner, Darcy (a wicked, malevolent Patrick Stewart, loving every second of a rare villain role). The film clocks in at a scalpel sliced 90 minutes, with not a second wasted on anything that doesn’t propel the story forward with the momentum of a machete ripping through bone. These dudes are out to get them at any cost, and the band in turn are whipped into an adrenaline overdrive of base survival instinct, using anything they can to dispatch their tormentors and escape. Yelchin does an excellent job of making their plight feel uncannily real, the terror emanating from every pore until there’s none left, and empty, deadly resolve sets in. Imogen Poots is great as one of the clubhouse girls, a no nonsense spitfire with revenge on the brain and the will to make it happen. Stewart chomps at the bit with an eerie calm and articulate, insidious presence, a genius casting decision and a joy to see in menacing action. I’m curious to see how much farther Saulnier can push the envelope with his next film, which I’ve heard will be the last entry in this episodic trilogy. This one shows us what a real thriller is, one that pumps your pulse to a boiling point and makes you glad there are filmmakers out there with the balls and creative know-how to make something like this happen. Just bring a thick skin, there’s a ton of graphic and very realistic looking violence. Unbelievably terrific stuff.
Spare. Menacing. Near constant tension. Vice-grip direction. Air-tight plotting that MAKES SENSE when you stop to think about the fine details. Graphically violent yet never exploitive. Virtually faultless. Blue Ruin was writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s big coming out as a top-notch genre-buster, and I absolutely can’t wait to see Green Room, which has been kicking ass at the various festivals of late. Reminiscent of the Coen brothers with its dark thrills an…d exacting formal precision, this is a true screw-turning thriller that takes no prisoners. It’s like no revenge movie I’ve ever seen, and I admired how Saulnier used the blackest of comedy to somewhat lighten the heavy, nihilistic load of neo-noir mayhem. Macon Blair’s uncommonly focused, award-worthy, multi-layered lead performance is one for the ages and totally mesmerizing to behold – I don’t care how stiff the competition was, this guy was ROBBED of an Oscar nomination. I don’t want to spoil the plot to Blue Ruin, but I’ll allow that it’s a “man on a mission” narrative that gets turned upside down due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, each escalating in violence, and culminating in an extra fierce finale. This is a dangerous, all-consuming work, strangely beautiful, and horrifyingly bloody. I loved all 90, ultra-precise moments, and along with Ben Wheatley, Saulnier is one of the most exciting new voices on the hardcore indie scene.