What in its opening stretch seems like an insular, anti-naturalistic approach to dialogue and line-delivery (having Hold the Dark make sense only within Hold the Dark) soon reveals itself as artistic crudeness, something thwarted on the way to enigma. Its hand is faux-terse, anxious- the film struggles a great deal in and around its grim surface, and while it is easy to see how this could be distracting, there is something special about the fact that this is the one to evade its authors. For Saulnier chaos comes anchored by its iconography, and for Blair, words on the subject, but if Blue Ruin and Green Room were an exercise in control, this one goes headfirst into control’s undoing (language of control intact).
With authorial profundity as a lost cause (but still endlessly mimicking and striving for it), the film achieves the kind of creepiness that can only be found in works with as many artistic blind spots as missed targets. This is not to say that the intention going in was structural as well as narrative discomfort, but two-fold discomfort is what we’ve been left with. (And if it’d been planned from the start, it wouldn’t be so elusive). It’s more porous for the force exerted by its authors, with more echoes, casting them as the idiot on stage not realising that the audience is reacting to something happening behind them. Skarsgård puts on the mask and kills the guy any way, Keough wears hers to signify guilt, but what happens immediately after? What happens between the cracks? The direction is a slow moving river, and the writing is the icebergs worth fearing and ridiculing. In these floating moments we remember that the director usually works according to action and reaction, but this only accounts for some of the picture here. The more it grasps at hard-boiled and ellipsis, the more we see it in terms of what it wants to (and can’t quite) be. It tries to carve out and become something that works, something with ideas of cause and effect, but it can never manage.
You would have to be the most trusting viewer in the world not to laugh at the room filled with canvases of slightly expressive wolf paintings used to characterise Core as ‘wolf expert’, and to follow Blair’s networks of inquiry in search of a conclusion. Whether it’s fair to relinquish your critical capacity when it means ignoring the author and submitting to the work’s indeterminacy is up for someone else to worry about, but in my defense if it’s about the ineffable, then its victories lie in what it fails to express, regardless of what Saulnier and Blair think about it. Because Hold the Dark might be the worst written thriller of recent years not by Taylor Sheridan, and Saulnier’s inability to do it justice actually works in its favour. One gets the impression as well that nobody behind it foisted it off on the audience with confidence, but rather that they got lost at some point and let it go.