Review of Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong—
Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, a universal wolf,
-Shakespeare,Troilus and Cressida
Do do do do do do do dodo dododo dodo
There is something innately powerful about stories set deep in the northern wilderness far from the glow of the electric eye. They show in stark terms the cycle of civilization: Man subdues the wilderness only to subdue himself in turn. The law of survival is replaced by the law of civility- the purpose of which is to restrain the appetites of man by domesticating him. Few will choose the life of the wolf when they can live as a dog (preferably attended to by white middle-class masters who give belly rubs). But what happens when the dog isn’t fed? I have heard stories of even the smallest and most useless dogs like Toy Poodles and Pomeranians driven by hunger and desperation to tear the jugular from their neglectful master’s throat and feed on their corpse (these dog owners are frequently bank-clerks but not always). There have also been cases of sex-starved pit-bulls raping their heavily-tattooed female owners to death but this warrants little attention. The lesson here is that civilization, both in its higher (European) and lower (American) forms, can endure only as far as it can satisfy and manage the lusts of man. It is for this reason that the natural trajectory of Civilization is towards Empire. On the frontiers it is possible to satiate the same bloodlust and desire for expansion that, if turned inward, would shatter all illusions of civility and bring about the destruction of the cities. However, despite the success of the current regime at inducting homosexuals, killers, rapists, racial aliens, journalists, childless women/divorcees, thieves, communists etc. into the folds of respectable society there still remains a type of genuine outlaw whose strength is growing with the waxing moon. This is because, while sharing the same perverse and carnal desires as the domesticated man-animal (or worse) they also want something that the system can never allow- FREEDOM.
I have seen two of Jeremy Saulnier’s previous films, Blue Ruin (2013) and Green Room (2015). The first being a rather unconventional revenge story about a man whose parents were murdered and the second is a film where Picard is a neo-nazi attempting to kill the members of a shitty punk band in the Pacific Northwest. Both are ultra-violent and refreshingly free of typical Hollywood tropes. Obviously I liked them enough to give his new film a shot and was not disappointed. I found it vastly superior to the other two and recommend it highly. Go watch it before reading the rest of this review because I will spoil the entire movie.
When her son is supposedly abducted by wolves Medura Slone (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough) writes a letter to retired wolf expert Russel Core (Jeffrey Wright) requesting he come kill the beast who took her son. Core arrives at the small Alaskan village finding a distraught and half-insane woman rambling about the darkness outside her windows. Also peculiar, though not initially addressed, is the fact that she is conspicuously the only white woman living in a village inhabited by injuns. He takes her strange behavior as a symptom of grief, behavior that includes approaching him naked in a wolf mask while he is attempting to sleep, then climbing into bed and inviting him to strangle her. He even dismisses the local injun woman who tries to tell him that Medura is actually possessed by a wolf-demon called a Tournaq, and goes to hunt the beasts.
Where the film gets really interesting is with the introduction of Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgard) who is participating in socially acceptable violence (killing the enemies of Israel) in the Middle East. Skarsgard is perfectly cast as the stoic blue-eyed killer and steals every scene he is in (I couldn’t help but think both of his role in Generation Kill and his father’s role in Insomnia as I watched it). Vernon is shipped home after being wounded only to find that his son is dead.
Of course things are not what they seem. The boy was in fact killed by his mother and when Vernon returns he initiates a killing spree that eventually leads to the slaughter of the entire local police department. The viewer is led to believe he wants revenge against his wife but slowly we see that is not his goal and she is not his wife but his sister. The films strength is the way these revelations take place without expository dialogue. Our only clue as to why Medura committed filicde is Core’s observation of the wolves doing the same. There is no law but the law of the pack and sometimes the pack eats its young. The Slones are more wolf than human and have no place in civilized society beyond, ironically, Vernon’s participation in the war. This point is driven home by Core’s ability to sympathize with them. Unlike the local Sheriff Marium (James Badge Dale), Core,having lived with wolves, understands life outside civilization and knows better than to project morality onto it. This is how he is able to track them down and also why in the end his life is spared by Vernon, who had until then killed basically everyone he encounters, including Marium whose pregnant wife is now a widow.
What does it mean though?
The wolf is the ancient enemy of civilization. Its loyalty is only to its stomach and its pack (in that order). Beyond good and evil, driven by primal forces, it is a reminder that civilizations come and go but nature endures. The civilization-process of placating and harnessing the appetites of man sews the seeds of its own doom. The further civilization-man is removed from natural law the weaker he becomes. While he becomes weak nature is unchanged and will reassert itself through the forces of barbarism, the hungry wolf that swallows the world.
It is likely conservative viewers will have a hard time with a film that requires the withholding of moral judgement in order to understand, but conservatives often struggle with art. Look closer and you will see. It shows us that Civilization, especially in its decline, has nothing to do with upholding moral law and the only concern is to keep the corpse on life support so the oligarchy can hold on to power. The moral pretenses given are merely window dressing that is both fake and gay. Consider for instance that mothers killing their children is perfectly acceptable as long as the baby has not left the womb, or that murder is legitimized when you join the US military. These being most relevant to the film but you can find endless examples of these sorts of contradictions in your everyday civilized life.
What made the Slones outlaws was neither incest nor filicide but their desire to live on their own terms. There is a place under the sun for every pervert, degenerate, and moral reprobate provided they submit. The system doesn’t ask you to follow moral law, in fact it demands you compromise yourself in order to live at all. The righteous and the wicked hang together when they step outside the lines.
As for the Wolf? Despite its menace there is a dignity in the animal that you will not find in a journalist, economist, or senator from Arizona. If we were to feed all these people to wolves it is possible we could create a truly worthy civilization. Its either that or we all go fuck our sisters.