Russell Is Saved From The Dark
We learn very little of Russell's life before going to Alaska, only that he's estranged from his wife and daughter, and is diving deep into his professional life with an apartment littered with various wolf paintings. In other words, he's in his own form of isolation, cut off from much of the real world in a psychological way just as the Sloanes are physically. Additionally, that he is "old" is called out repeatedly, initially by Medora and later self-deprecatingly himself, and there's an overall unsuitability to his original task of hunting down a wolf (indeed, in the first instance he fails in tracking them and calls direct attention to himself, saved only by mercy). He shouldn't be there, yet has come anyway because, it seems, he has nothing other than the hope to see his Anchorage-based daughter.
Russell is susceptible to the same dissonance that leads the Sloanes to be murderers, further shown in how affected he is by the incredibly short days that far north. It's beating underneath everything, but he, in particular, has lost all direction. Ultimately, though, he manages to find a way out through human connection - he begins to bond with Donald before his death - and bring himself back. The final note of him reconnecting with his daughter is a quiet but purposeful beat of him achieving what he's been limply fighting for since long before the movie started. He's telling the story - the reason Medora wrote him in the first place - and in doing so communicating in a human way, holding back the dark and protecting future generations.
Within this is one of the most ambiguous aspects: Russell being spaced by both Vernon and the wolves (the latter twice - at the start and end). While this is primarily to highlight the shared nature of the two potential attacks, it can also be viewed as some degree of acknowledgment of, perhaps, one of their own.
Hold The Dark's Real Meaning
Like all of Saulnier's films, Hold The Dark is a brutal, unflinching look at life and death with tangible stakes. However, whereas Green Room was about the young accepting unavoidable mortality, there's something grander here. The importance of family, the passing of generations and relationships are present in many forms throughout the movie: Russell's fractured relationship with his daughter; Donald's wife pregnant with his first child at 43; and, of course, the many dead children. There's still that creeping grim reaper just out of eye, sure, but there's a further maturity of understanding one's place in the universe, accentuated by the more spiritual native population.
Hold The Dark thus goes bigger than the self and survival, looking at our grasp of humanity and the threat of animalistic tendencies. Everything horrific that happens comes from the isolation and removal from society, with that leading the Sloanes especially back towards the wild. It's impossible to distinguish the actions of them and the wolves - Medora killed her son with wolf-like survival instincts and at the end both man and beast has mercy on Russell - because in nature there isn't. The ending has Russell reuniting with his daughter after returning to civilization as the Sloane's traipse deeper into the wilderness. He's returned from the brink; the Dark is what lies over that edge.
All of this could make the desolate movie - in tone, visuals and performances - too highly unwieldy, but Russell's so-dubbed redemption pulls it up just as his daughter does him. Hold The Dark isn't demonizing remote Alaskan communities, but highlighting the dark, animalistic nature within everybody. We all must hold back the dark, seen best in the redemptive arc of our hero.
- Hold The Dark (2018) release date: Sep 28, 2018