Did you know that Alaska is the largest state of the United States? Or that Alaska is the only state name that can be typed on only one row of keys? Crazy to think, but true. More often than not, Alaska in cinema is represented as ambiguous and isolated from the rest of the world. And if those fun facts didn’t do it, think John Carpenter’s terrifying Thing or the movie and television series Fargo and the countless aliens that converge in Alaska to commit their abductions.
Alaska is the perfect setting to convey a mysterious and foreboding story. Hold the Dark (2018) is no different. Netflix’s newest drama takes place in desolate and cold Alaska. But does it do anything new and worthwhile in good ol’ Alaska? Or does it settle for safety in this familiar space?
Hold the Dark opens with Medora Slone retelling the events of her son Baily’s kidnapping by wolves in a letter to Russel Core. Medora pleads with Russel and asks him to use his wolf expertise to track a kill the culprit wolf. Not everything is as it seems in the small village of Alaska of course. Things turn deadly when Baily’s Father returns from war and soon Russel finds himself in the middle of a series of strange events.
One of the strongest elements of Hold the Dark is the movie’s time in Alaska. As I mentioned before, Alaska has a certain ambiguous and foreboding charm attached to it. Hold the Dark effectively exploits this charm by coupling the setting with an equally isolated storyline. Wide sweeping shots pull you into the cold barren wasteland. The close ups of frozen snow on a Russel’s beard and shots of cold breaths help convey the fidget temperatures and isolation felt throughout the movie.
The score and sounds design in Hold the Dark also pushes suspense and isolation forward. Steps in the snow are emphasized with a harsh crunching sound. The amplified sniffles and coughs add to the ambiance of sickness. But a certain sound direction I found most interesting is the decision to have an overall quite and low volume movie. A lot of the dialog is whispered or slowly enunciated between the characters.
As a result, the screams of terror and resounding gun fire become much more startling and thus more exciting to hear. The score and cinematography help Hold the Dark become a beautiful movie, but unfortunately the plot and storytelling left me scratching my head.
The motivation and needs and wants of all the main characters escaped me. One second a character is a protagonist a couple scenes later, that same character becomes an antagonist without a clear motivated transition. One of my biggest complains is the husband Vernon. The movie spends much of its time following him and his attempts to avenge his son.
At first we are supposed to sympathize with this man that returns from war only to have to avenge his young son. That sympathy is soon vaporized by unnecessary and unexplainable violent scenes. When he finally comes face to face with the culprit, he frustratingly embraces them with open arms.
Another underlying issue with Hold the Dark is its unrealized potential of story. The movie never decides what it wants to be. A mysterious kidnapping, police involvement and a sense of hopelessness all point to a some type of crime drama. But scenes of blood, body snatching and demon magic push it towards as a supernatural story. Much like its characters, the scenes of supernatural are never explained.
The scenes of supernatural as a result feel too interjected in a rather melodramatic crime movie. Hold the Dark sets up question after question, but never takes the time to give answers or even as so much as a direction of motivation. That is not to say ambiguous motivations and unexplained supernatural events is impossible in film. But without a sense of motivation, the scenes of the unexplainable and supernatural fall flat.
Hold the Dark is a beautiful movie thanks to its smart uses of cinematography, setting and sounds design. But with cryptic character motivations and lack of identity it struggles to tell the story it tries so hard to tell.