The Director of Netflix's Creepy 'Hold The Dark' Explains the Movie's Biggest Mystery

hold the dark

The new film Hold the Dark -- which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now available on Netflix -- does not offer easy answers. In fact, it barely offers any answers. But even though you may wind up feeling a little perplexed as to what you just watched, director Jeremy Saulnier tells Thrillist that the movie is peppered with clues as to what's really going on in the surreal, violent, and snowy landscape. 

Hold the Dark is a surreal mystery about a fictional remote Alaskan village, Keelut, beset by wolves that are apparently taking children. One such child is Bailey, the son of Medora Stone (Riley Keough). Stone asks writer and researcher Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) to come and find the creature responsible, but soon after Core arrives he discovers a much different scenario. Medora actually murdered her son. Core finds the body wrapped up in her basement, and Medora has disappeared.

Meanwhile, her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) is returning from war to find his kid dead and his wife missing, which sends him on a bloody hunt. There's certainly something strange about their relationship, but it's unclear what, exactly, and this uncertainty becomes one of the central themes propelling the plot.

"Once I committed to the project, it was cathartic and positive for me in that it helped me deal with the frustrations of trying to every day figure out what the fuck we're doing to each other, why humans behave the way they do, why we're so inherently violent and tribal and sort of act counter to our best interests," Saulnier says. 

click to play video

The film is based on a novel by William Giraldi, which gets a little more explicit as the plot unravels and the bodies pile up. Though the connection between Medora and Vernon, two Nordic-looking people who stand out amid the largely indigenous population of Keelut, isn't defined on screen, it is in the text. They're twins, which obviously makes the fact that they live as husband and wife a bit strange, to say the least. And while Saulnier's film doesn't really assign a motive to Medora's infanticide, Giraldi's work describes her emotions surrounding the birth of Bailey. In one portion it reads, "The first day she was alone with her child she fought an urge to toss him into the fire. She was convinced that his birth meant the death of her."

Saulnier says he shot footage that reveals the true nature of Medora and Vernon's relationship, but he ultimately decided it was better off left unspoken. However, the allusions are there. "Watch it again," he suggests. "There's actually lots of clues about Vernon and Medora in the movie."

So where should you pay especially close attention? "From the first time we meet Medora," he says. "It's the tour around Keelut. When she takes Core around, she says everything."

Indeed, when Medora is walking with Core, he asks her if she met her husband in the village. She responds, "I didn't meet him anywhere. I knew him my whole life. I don't have a memory he isn't in." Pretty telling, especially on a second watch.

"As far as Medora, we have people throughout the film chime [in] and analyze her, but it's never the correct answer," Saulnier says. "Core even explicitly says there is an answer, we just don't know it. That to me was more in keeping with the theme of the movie. When you spelled it out and tried to wrap it up in a bow at the end, it just lost its power."

While the mysteries of the characters' backgrounds and motivations contribute to the brooding tone of Hold the Dark, capturing the icy mood of the plot meant embracing the below freezing "terrible weather" in Alberta, Canada. It also meant working with real wolves. "I did not want to resort to CG wolves, 3D-built customized wolves that will do whatever you say, go wherever you want," Saulnier says. Yes, even during an early sequences wherein Core observes a pack tearing apart one of their young.

"The wolves behaved very well, but the makeup effects team had a huge task in that," he says. "Of course we had to keep things safe for everything -- the humans and the animals -- but that is a wolf pup designed by Mike Marino's team at Prosthetic Renaissance in New Jersey. Totally edible. Fabricated from scratch. With hair and skin. It was, like, insane. Brutal to watch, but totally integral to the theme of the whole story." After all, it's a brutal, disgusting world out there -- for humans and animals alive. 

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.