Warning: This post contains spoilers for Hold the Dark.
After watching the extraordinary Wyoming-set movie Wind River last year, I emerged from the theater completely certain I fulfilled my lifetime quota of uber-violent movies set in the coldest, grimmest regions of the United States. I did it. I was done. I did not have to endure any movies colder than Frozen.
Then, this morning, I found myself back in the upper latitudes of North America while watching the contemplative Netflix thriller Hold the Dark, out Friday. The movie-watching experience spurred many questions: Why am I doing this to myself? How long does it take for ice crystals to form on Jeffrey Wright’s generous beard? Why have none of the native Alaskans noticed the fact that supposed Alaskan “native” Vern (Alexander Skarsgård) has a Swedish accent? Did Medora (Riley Keough) study creepy monologue delivery with an acting professional? But the most significant string of questions was spurred by the movie’s ending.
Unlike Wind River, which is cut-and-dry in its brutal ending, Hold the Dark’s conclusion is vague — and, frankly speaking, so is the rest of its plot. That’s because Hold the Dark isn’t a movie concerned with plot, but rather with Big Ideas: life at the edge of civilization, revenge, people who are wolves, wolves who spare people, mothers who do the unthinkable — and why.
Before we can answer all of your big questions about the movie’s symbol-riddled ending, let's make sure we're all on the same page in terms of basic plot. Hold the Dark kicks off when Alaska housewife Medora Sloane sends a handwritten letter to naturalist and wolf expert Russell Core after she believes her son has been taken by wolves. Russell is either bored or blessed with a natural inclination to help people, because next thing we know, he’s in Medora’s spare cabin in Northern Alaska putting on the right kind of boots to trudge through the snow. Halfway across the world, Medora’s husband, Vern, suffers a neck injury during the war in the Middle East and is sent home.
The movie's first Big Revelation comes early on. Russell finds the body of Medora's 5-year-old son frozen in the cabin. As he learns, Medora strangled the boy; his death had nothing to do with wolves. What comes next is a lot of people chasing each other through Alaska with guns. Medora escapes into the wilderness. Vern kills two policemen on Medora's case and sets off to find his wife himself. Finally, Russell and police chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) chase Vern down, which eventually leads to a shoot-out of disturbing proportions. Eventually, after almost every character who began the movie living is dead, Medora and Vern meet up at the hot springs and make out — and that's where all our big questions start.
What's up with that wolf mask?
Pay attention to the wolf mask. It is instrumental to the movie's Big Ideas. The wolf mask makes its first appearance 15 minutes into the movie, when Medora more or less confesses to her crime. She walks into Russell's bedroom naked, wearing only the mask that had been hanging on her wall. Wordlessly, she gets into bed and brings Russell's hands to her neck. She forces him to nearly strangle her. This is Medora's way of saying, "I am the wolf."
Later on, Vern carries out a series of killings wearing a same wolf mask, which he had taken from the hut of a rural hunter. "I can see you need to let the wolf out a little," the hunter says. Vern puts the mask on and immediately assumes Medora's lupine spirit. He kills the trapper in cold blood. At the end of the movie, after Vern and Medora reconcile, they seem to recognize their shared "wolfiness" and leave civilization together.
So...are Medora and Vern wolves?
Characters are constantly remarking on Medora and Vern's "otherness." As a child, Vern's father was concerned he was not quite human. "He said you was...unnatural, that was his word," the trapper recalls to Vern. A local American Indian witch — likely the same woman who warns Russell of Medora's evil – had told Vern's father that wolf's oil from the hunter could cure Vern of his condition. In the present day, local American Indians warn Russell that Medora is possessed by a wolf's spirit.
Metaphorically, Medora and Vern are wolf-y. Obviously, though, Medora and Vern aren't wolves — Hold the Dark might be heavy on the symbols, but it's still set in the real world. They're people with streaks of ungovernable wildness; the mask lets that wildness out.
So...are Medora and Vern siblings?
Indeed, that's the unspoken insinuation! Medora tells Russell she can't remember a time before Vern. And remember how someone says they're both "Nordic?" Vern and Medora are the same kind of strange because they share the same blood. Whereas this twist is only insinuated in the movie, it's overly stated in William Giraldi's novel. In fact, Medora is pregnant in the novel.
Why do the real wolves and the "human" wolves spare Russell?
Aside from Medora and Vern, Russell is the only character who ends the movie alive — which is impressive, considering the number of wolf packs and bullets he encounters. But if anyone is going to survive wolves, it's Russell. Author of the book A Year Among Them, he knows how to navigate wolf behavior. He spent a year among them!
Russell encounters packs of Alaskan wolves twice. On both occasions, the wolves stare him down and turn away. Then, he survives the "human" wolves. At a point when Vern could've easily killed Russell, he chooses to remove the arrow from Russell's chest and allow him to escape. Russell has been spared.
Fine, fine, Russell is blessed by the wolf god. But that doesn't explain why Medora and Vernon did any of it. Why did they do it?
Ah, that's the question. It's one that never quite gets answered, either. After surviving the shoot-out, Russell and Donald talk about the motivation behind the Sloanes' rampage. Russell is convinced these gaping questions had answers — but he and Donald may never truly understand them. "They do [have answers]. Whether or not they fit in our experience is another matter," he says. Russell and Donald aren't wild like the Sloanes. Russell's theory? Medora wanted to spare the boy from a lifetime of darkness. The darkness that he'll inherit from his "other" parents and the darkness of their region, where the sun goes down at 3:30 p.m.
What happens to Vern and Medora?
The couple trudges through the Alaskan wilderness, dragging their son's coffin behind them. In the next shot, we see two wolves running. We're left to infer that the wolves are coming for Vern and Medora. Vern and Medora choose to destroy themselves instead of heading back civilization, where would be quickly apprehended and arrested for their crimes.
I don't like that ending!
Fine. You can also think that Vern and Medora are the two wolves running, and they were restored to their true forms.
If Medora knew how her son died, why did she call Russell?
As Russell astutely observes, Medora wanted someone to bear witness to her story. A story can pierce the darkness.
What does the movie's final scene mean?
Russell, lucky Russell, makes it back to a hospital. His daughter, a teacher in Anchorage, is waiting for him. Throughout the movie, Russell had been alluding to his estranged daughter. In fact, he was motivated to travel to Alaska to reconnect with her. Now, he can pass on Medora's story to his daughter — exactly what Medora wanted.
Should we have guessed this was where the movie was going all along?
You mean, should we have guessed Hold the Dark would be an allegorical story about canines and dangers lurking within and outside of us? Yes. A huge clue was embedded into the name of the Medora and Vern's remote town, Keelut. In Inuit mythology, a Keelut is a spirit of the underworld who takes the form of a black hairless dog and preys on humans. Everyone has keelut within them and outside of them.