Darkness at the Edge of Town
Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film, Hold the Dark is his most overt Western so far. His previous films, the murky revenge Blue Ruin, and punks vs Nazis masterpiece Green Room have flirted with the genre before, taking inspiration from the westerns of the 70’s (Green Room’s origins can be traced right back to films like Rio Bravo), but it’s Hold the Dark which feels like a throwback, and though it isn’t his best film (come on guys, punks vs Nazis, how can you beat that?) it’s easily his most complex. It’s also part of a new generation of modern westerns, harking back to old American film-making, but at the same time, looking forward to new frontiers.
Set in Alaska during the latest Iraq War, Hold the Dark finds author Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) summoned to an isolated community after a young boy is taken by wolves. Core’s purpose there is to hunt down and kill the wolf that took the boy. However, it soon becomes apparent that wolves may not be responsible for what happened to the boy, and as Core and the police start to hunt down those responsible, the boy’s father, Vernon Alone (Alexander Skarsgard) arrives back from the war, leaving behind him a trail of dead bodies as he too begins a search for someone in the wilderness. As all of the paths of the various characters converge, the plot thins and the meaning behind events becomes more and more ambiguous. We’re watching the film through the eyes of Core, a stranger in the community, and he’s often confronted by things he doesn’t understand, told things that don’t make sense, and experiences acts of violence that he cannot fathom. In the middle of the film, an horrific shootout takes place, a standoff between the police and a member of the isolated town in which the boy lived. There’s little by way of explanation or set up, and the suddenness of it, and the violence of it, they shock you and they scare you, and afterwards the scene lingers because it doesn’t make sense.
Writer/director Taylor Sheridan has made his career out of these kinds of modern western. His triptych of Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River (each a diminishing return on the other) explores a new American frontier. In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent joins a task force crossing the Mexican border to apprehend a drug lord. She quickly becomes embroiled in a much more complex, darker plot in the war on drugs. Like Hold the Dark, Sicario’s best moment comes in the middle, in a tense western-esque standoff between cars at the Mexico/US border.
Hell or High Water finds two Texan brothers committing bank robberies to help pay for the mortgage on their mum’s house (that the banks they are robbing are the ones foreclosing on the property is no coincidence). The film finds a common ground between the Texas ranger chasing them (Jeff Bridges), and the elder brother (Chris Pine), two working men confronted with the financial crisis, both of whom live on the edge of the world.
But it’s Sheridan’s directorial debut (he wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water) that finds the closest parallels to Hold the Dark. Wind River is a clumsy film, clumsier than Hold the Dark. In it, Elizabeth Olson’s FBI agent is sent to Wyoming after the body of a girl is discovered. She finds herself out of place and out of touch with the local community and partners up with a local tracker to help solve the mystery. The tracker, played by Jeremy Renner, is intended to be an outsider in his own way. He is a white guy living on a reservation. However, the film portrays him as an all-knowing mystical person, and its one attempt to hold him to task for appropriating a culture is an awkwardly shoehorned in moment that never really lands. However, its portrayal of an almost lawless land, in which the landscape and nature itself threaten to overwhelm the people. On being asked by someone about the cause of death, Jeremy Renner’s character answers, “She died in the wilderness.”
The western used to be a genre focussed on the very edges of America, where the country bled away into deserts and where mankind attempted to thrive. These modern films have a different focus. Yes, there is the desert, and there is the endless snow. But the communities in these films aren’t trying to survive, they have learned how to, they have their own way of living, whether that’s a code of honour, or a respect for the land. In Hold the Dark it’s the embrace of nature.
Two late 2000’s films may be the template for this kind of neo-Western. 2008’s The Hurt Locker, and 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Both of these are concerned with landscape, the edgelands of what was America at the time. With Kathryn Bigalow’s masterful The Hurt Locker, that frontier may be in Iraq, but it’s a lawless land where Jeremy Renner finds an outlet for his adrenaline rushes, defusing bombs. In No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers set up a story that purposefully avoids the clichés of the genre. The final shootout happens offscreen, and the characters enter into bargains throughout the course of the narrative, convinced they know the outcome, as though they are aware of their place in a western.
It’s interesting to note that this crop of films only dates back to the last decade or so. Each of them beyond the second Iraq war, each of them beyond the new face of terrorism. It’s akin to the rise in torture porn in horror. We spent every year since 2001 putting those fears on screen, exploring a uniquely American fear of the outside world, and the uneasy relationship the country has with borders. This kind of thinking also brings up TV shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul which bleeds across Albuquerque and South America.
It’s no surprise that Hold the Dark was pitched as ‘Snow Country for Old Men’, as Macon Blair (who wrote the screenplay, and has starred in all of Saulnier’s films) explains in an interview with Birth.movies.death, “that felt like a very mapped sort of comparison; like a weird, fragmented kind of narrative that describes the landscape, atmosphere, and it’s sort of nihilistic view on the world.”
If there’s a thick connective tissue between all of these films, it’s one of isolation. It’s at odds with older westerns in which the landscapes are less harsh and more beautiful vistas, and where men (always men) go to tame the wild. In Saulnier’s films, and those of the Coens and Sheridan, our central characters are at odds with the worlds in which they find themselves. There are no answers, if there were any answers at all to begin with. Hold the Dark might be about a community cursed by a wolf spirit, it might be about a romance between psychopaths, it might be (as the novel suggests) a story about an incestuous village, or it might be none of those. At its climax, neither the viewer, nor Core understands quite what they have experienced.
This new trend of modern western often ends this way, with unclear, murky moments between characters. An unsure future is what lies ahead as people reckon with mortality, and the strange borders they live on. As Benecio Del Toro’s character Alejandro says at the close of Sicario, “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”
That’s what lies beyond, these films tell us.
Reviewed by Daniel Carpenter
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