Hold the Dark (2018)
★ / ★★★★
The picture begins with a curious mystery involving a boy (Beckam Crawford) being taken by wolves. At least this is what his mother, Medora (Riley Keough), claims to have happened. This is the third child that had been abducted in their Northern Alaska village. She is so desperate and so afraid that her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier currently overseas, would come home without any facts to offer him that she requests the help of Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a man with extensive experience of tracking down wolves.
Although based on the novel by William Giraldi, screenwriter Macon Blair and director Jeremy Saulnier fail to translate the story from page to screen in a way that is entertaining or enlightening. Mildly curious at times because the mythos of the village, the people who live there, and the animals within the vicinity are so alive, it is such a disappointment then that the majority of the film is a soporific experience, moving slower than molasses for no reason other than to test the patience. Perhaps the intention is to drench the audience in atmosphere and mood, but it is ineffective because it does not give us reason to remain emotionally invested. A slow pacing does not generate interest out of thin air.
Halfway through the film, I caught myself feeling appalled that it is directed by Saulnier, a filmmaker no stranger in establishing a calculated pace and then breaking it by sudden bouts of violence (“Blue Ruin,” “Green Room”). While the approach is present here, unlike his previous work, the feeling behind the strategy is lifeless. It is like someone else attempting to make a poor imitation of Saulnier. I wondered if he has gotten tired of his usual tricks.
It is like clockwork. For instance, prior to the explosive violence, we are asked to endure the characters speak to one another in either monotone or whispers. It is a requirement that they look miserable or sad. Notice there is no reason for them to speak in this manner. Most of the time it comes across as a performance rather than a genuine moment in time of simply being. As a result, we grow detached from the characters being put onto the canvas. A scene or two after such conversations, somebody shoots another with a gun point-blank, or someone is stabbed, others are shot with an arrow. Another employs an assault rifle to mow down local police. I found the charade to be painfully predictable.
“Hold the Dark” is most frustrating because it is an amalgamation of ideas that, at first glance, do not or should not fit together: animals are behaving strangely, there is talk about being possessed by demons when masks are worn, American Indians reference their folklores to try to explain or hint to an outsider what is possibly going on, and the community tending to have its own unspoken rules. It is the writer and director’s job to put these pieces together in a way that is presentable and welcoming—especially for viewers who many not be interested initially with these occurrences.
The failure of the film, I think, can be attributed to the filmmakers’ lack of understanding of the source material. Because if they did thoroughly understand, joy and excitement could be felt even from the most depressing or bleakest story. The viewers would have a complete understanding of themes, character motivations, and the reason why this story is special to this Alaskan village. Instead, the work is opaque for the sake of being opaque.
Green Room (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier crafts a meticulous thriller that is not about plot or characters but about an exercise in tension. “Green Room” presents a situation which involves being stuck in a particular place and over time we begin to wonder what the key players are willing to sacrifice in order to extricate themselves out of an increasingly complicated—and messy—affair. It is composed of performers who sell their roles with authenticity.
The circumstance is this: four hard rock bandmates (Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner), desperate for money, accept a job to play at a club located in the woods of Oregon. The catch: the patrons are neo-Nazi skinheads. Although the show goes shockingly well despite the opening cover song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by the Dead Kennedys, which offended some of the audience, Pat (Yelchin) stumbles upon a murder scene in one of the rooms while his friends are on their way out to the van. The bouncers forcibly put the band members in the same room as the corpse until the cops arrive.
Notice how little we get to know the characters. In a survival thriller involving a group of people, such a technique works because it puts us on edge. Typically, in more mainstream thrillers propelled by painfully ordinary visions, usually the character, or characters, who talks the most or shares a handful of one’s life stories is likely to be the sole survivor.
Here, we grow anxious, sometimes in an underhanded way, because we expect to grow attached to least one of them through expected motifs but they rarely, if ever, arrive. Sometimes a character begins to speak in a serious tone but then it turns out to be a misdirect. Action intervenes. The dynamics of the plight changes. We realize that anybody can drop dead at the drop of a hat. And that’s exciting.
Like in Saulnier’s previous feature films, “Murder Party” and the highly underrated “Blue Ruin,” the writer-director is not afraid to deliver the necessary brutality but also not afraid to use such violence to involve rather than to disgust the audience. For example, when a person’s arm gets stuck at a door and there is an assailant on the other side, the camera lingers an extra beat or two. A second or two may not sound like a long time, but the longer it stayed in that position, I found myself willing the camera to look another way or for the director to break the shot. Saulnier delivers these fresh choices with consistency. It is such a joy to relish his work because we can feel his love for the thriller genre through his control of the craft.
Equally in control is Patrick Stewart who plays the owner of the neo-Nazi bar named Darcy. There is a smooth calm about him that is particularly eerie. Darcy doesn’t scream or yell but you know that when he wants something done, it had better be done correctly, exactly how he wanted it to be accomplished. Stewart makes an interesting choice of wearing almost one expression the entire time. What changes, however, are his eyes. He is like a bomb with red numbers counting down; we cannot help but stare at those eyes, desperate for a glint of humanity or mercy, but the numbers don’t care. They just are.
Blue Ruin (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film about revenge and shows violence but never glorifies it. It presents violence as a very messy affair where things do not go exactly as planned. But what elevates the picture, written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is its unrelenting atmosphere of sadness.
Glossier and more mainstream movies about revenge tend to highlight the idea that vengeance chips away the humanity of those who act upon it. Not here. We grow to care for Dwight (Macon Blair) exactly because he maintains his deepest humanity throughout. By the end, it is clear that his actions are driven by a sense of duty. One can make a case that this film has the heart, vision, and confidence of a classic western.
Tense moments build and command momentum because Saulnier has a patient eye. He is not afraid to include scenes that appear as though nothing much is happening. Look more closely as the writer-director reveals who the protagonist is beyond what drives him to kill. The picture is at its best when Dwight decides to seek out a friend from high school, Ben (Devin Ratray), and asks for a favor. From the moment they meet at a parking lot to the point where they must part, we get a clear and specific impression about their friendship.
Dwight is an interesting specimen because he is no action hero. The character has no special skills, he is not very fast, and he is not especially intelligent. He is sensitive but that can get one killed. The casting is also inspired. Blair looks like a regular person walking down the street. Such a decision pays off quite big at times because we see that someone who looks like our neighbor down the road is capable of murdering in cold blood.
The material is not about words uttered but about action. Sometimes it is about silence. As Dwight kicks down the door of a stranger’s home, gun pointed twelve o’clock, and enters each room, there is no score or soundtrack. The only sounds are the scuffling of his feet, his rapid breathing, his heartbeat, and his body making contact with the environment. We walk in the shoes of an intruder.
Dwight feels he must avenge the murder of his parents. Because of a plea deal, Wade is released from prison. Dwight sets out to correct this. “Blue Ruin” is grim and violent, but it is also smart, suspenseful, and profound. It does not set out to make a case for or against revenge; it merely follows one man’s journey. Dwight has an idea how it might all end. We do, too. But when the material consistently upends expectations, one cannot help but feel hope.
Murder Party (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
“Murder Party,” written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is a charming horror-comedy that might have benefited greatly if it had a more sinister undercurrent about artists and their art. Instead, what results is a somewhat watchable, playful romp but one lacking intrigue.
On his way from the video store before Trick-or-Treating begins, Christopher (Chris Sharp) crosses paths with a piece of paper being blown by the wind. Written on it is a so-called event called Murder Party, an address, and an instruction to come alone. Under the impression that it is some sort of a fun Halloween party, Christopher makes a last-minute costume made of boxes, bakes a pumpkin cake with raisins as contribution, and takes off to attend the event. The address written on the invitation takes him to a secluded warehouse where five people wearing costumes—three men and two women—await their victim.
Most of the attempts at comedy come in the form of slapstick. The deaths are often silly and surprising, almost always in consecutive order, and so the gasps of horror are consistently followed by chuckles or laughter. The writer-director has a talent for shaping scenes that involve accidental deaths. Notice that with scenes that lead up to a death, they are often very busy: characters are talking at once, there are many body movements in the foreground or background, the editing employs quick number of cuts. Once such a strategy is recognized, one can anticipate that within the next minute or so, a character will drop dead.
In a way, however, ironically, this makes for a rather predictable viewing. Still, one might argue that the film is not about who dies but how one dies. There are some creativity during the death scenes and I enjoyed that there is an overall joy to the process—whether it be a performer trying his or her best to capture a specific emotion before signing out or how the special effects involving gore tend to evince a level of camp. Neither the performances nor the effects are always convincing or on point but there is an undeniable sense of fun.
The picture falls short when the subject of art is brought up. Each of the five potential killers is a sort of artist one way or another but we never get a clear picture of what each person wishes to accomplish with his or her art, their endgame, especially when he or she results to extreme ways to make a statement. The most we learn is the type of medium he or she specializes in and that they are vying for a grant.
It would have been a refreshing move if we knew more about the aspiring murders’ respective motivations more than the protagonist’s—especially when the protagonist is so passive and plain as Christopher is in the film. To have made the antagonists more interesting would have been a pretty big statement in itself.