Alexander Skarsgård is the Devil (review of Jeremy Saulnier’s HOLD THE DARK)

It’s hard not to think of a small-screen release as, you know, small–even if its scope is a vast, wolf-haunted expanse of Alaskan wilderness. Helicopter tracking shots of entire ridges of snowcapped mountains on a 52-inch flatscreen, whether here or in an episode of Game of Thrones, still somehow feel like mere fleeting bits of a smaller cinema relative to, say, former YouTube star Bo Burnham’s 2018 coming-of-age-in-that-of-social-media story Eighth Grade–which could easily have been an Amazon Original or the like but, thankfully, debuted on the big screen.

In a desolate arctic town, a child (Beckam Crawford) plays with a toy soldier in the snow. Then we see his mother (Riley Keough), walking to an open door to check on her boy–only to find the toy soldier stranded, alone–as she suddenly finds herself.

An author (Jeffrey Wright) receives a letter about a boy that’s been taken by wolves–a mythologized animal he apparently knows a little something about. He promptly unplugs his Christmas lights and heads north–for his own reasons.

And then we’re in the desert–following a man with a steely gaze (a chilling Alexander Skarsgård) as he negotiates his way through the hell of war. The only thing we learn about him in this initial sequence is he’s a man with his own moral code.

I wonder if having held out for an upcoming Alamo Drafthouse screening of Jeremy Saulnier’s fourth feature Hold the Dark might’ve sunken me any deeper into its ominous environs–as, say, seeing the cinematographer-turned-director’s Green Room, a much “smaller” tale, on the big screen had. After Blue Ruin, which, full disclosure, I saw for the first time on the small screen, I was eager to see Saulnier’s aptly-named, jade-hued third feature starring the now-late, great Anton Yelchin, and Patrick Stewart, of all people, as a (soft-spoken) Neo-Nazi general. I was excited for Saulnier’s patented sudden bursts of hyper-real screen violence in an atmosphere drenched with palpable hopelessness–and Green Room certainly delivered.

Perhaps because Hold the Dark is a Netflix “event,” I waited a little before hitting play on this Jack London-esque epic–from the man who once answered the question “What if Anton Chigurh were afraid of hepatitis?” Still, I had hoped to feel silly for doubting.

Jeffrey Wright was a big reason I moved this one up a little in my “queue”–but then he was maybe a little too painfully subdued, harder to watch than Westworld‘s Bernard/Arnold as a “host” with a season-long slow brain-fluid leak. Don’t get me wrong–I’m a big fan of Wright’s. His participation just felt like a missed opportunity here. His author/supposed wolf hunter seemed never to find his footing, relegated to pulling cops who’ve just been shot to safety behind rocks and occasionally blurting out a clue to move the story forward. Perhaps that’s reductive–but it’s the impression I’m left with. Though I will say I might justify a second viewing of this just to see if I’m being unfair–maybe having somehow overlooked a quite possible world of nuance in Wright’s gestures and tones.

On the other hand, Alexander Skarsgård is the Devil. He embodies another of Saulnier’s affecting Anton Chigurh riffs (the first being Macon Blair’s bumbling avenger in his revelatory Blue Ruin) like this is what he was born–or came from Hell–to do. Between this and his dreamboat abusive husband in HBO’s gripping Big Little Lies–while I’m not fool enough to believe that even Dennis Hopper is anything like his demented, PBR-devoted Frank Booth–I’m pretty sure I’d flinch if I ever turned a real-life corner only to find Skarsgård there, coolly looking down. He’s the surest sign of life in this movie–moving through it like a Terminator dressed in flesh and a spooky wooden mask.

photo-feb-24-3-25-52-pm 2.5 out of 4 Hats