It is real kind of Hold the Dark, the fourth film directed by Jeremy Saulnier, to sum up all of its problems in one single shot. Or, I guess, a pair of shots. Late in the film, there's a very long, extravagant gun battle (no spoiler: it is one of the only things anybody has been discussing about the film, in part because it is one of the only things about the film that's very interesting), and during this gun battle a man is shot, and goes flying in extremely dramatic slow-motion. That's not the shot. The shot comes right after, as we see a dog barking, also in extremely dramatic slow-motion, and the basic rules of continuity editing insist upon our viewing this as the dog's highly melodramatic "nooooo!" reaction to the human's death. It is ridiculous and stupid, so incredibly serious and po-faced that it goes from seeming sincere to feeling like self-parody and then back to sincere, because if you're doing a parody of this kind of unbelievably grave, ultra-gloomy Cinema Of Human Misery, you probably wouldn't have the balls to be that overt about it.

And that is, I am sorry to say, more or less the complete experience I had in connection to the film. It is incredibly mirthless - aggressively, obsessively so. This is generally not a great thing ever,* serving as it so often does that a filmmaker has formed an unhealthily admiring relationship with the recesses of their own asshole, but it's particularly dismaying in the case of Saulnier, whose last two films - 2013's Blue Ruin and 2015's Green Room - are both charged with a tense comic energy that doesn't at all deflate the tension and violent mood that permeates both of those thrillers, but instead sets it off, somehow sharpening the films' focus. It's comic anti-relief. Hold the Dark has absolutely no such ambitions: I am genuinely not sure if there is even one line of dialogue or facial expression at any point in its lumbering two hours and five minutes that qualifies as a deliberate gag (and of accidental gags, there are few beyond that dog).

It's very tempting to blame this on the fact that Hold the Dark is the first time that Saulnier hasn't written his own script: the film was adapted from William Giraldi's book by Macon Blair, the director's longtime friend and (as an actor) collaborator. On the other hand, Blair's screenplay for his own directorial effort, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, can hardly be accused of lacking a sense of humor (indeed, its biggest problem might be that it has too much of one), so maybe we should take the path of even less resistance, and blame it all on Netflix, which has done a really exemplary job in 2018 of transforming itself in the place where genre films are much worse than they have any reason to be.

For Hold the Dark is certainly worse than it has any reason to be. It's a pretty straightforward little mystery at the start: Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a sad sack wildlife expert, has been called in to a small, isolated Alaska town with a wolf problem. Three children have lately gone missing, with all the available evidence suggesting that they've been carried off by predatory animals, and Medora Slone (Riley Keough), mother of the third child, has hired Russell to go hunting. Given Medora's immediately strange behavior, it is very little surprise that there's more to this than Russell has been given to believe. The already rocky, strange situation in town is thrown into further disarray when Medora's husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from military deployment in Iraq: he killed a fellow soldier who was sexually assaulting a local woman, and was wounded in the process (shown in an artlessly wedged-in cutaway sequence), and it is not entirely clear whether it was the killing or the wounding that got him his ticket stateside, but he immediately proves to be even more obviously bent than Medora was.

Fine ingredients, but also a bit too familiar, and other than being incredibly bleak, I'm not sure what Hold the Dark does to freshen them any. It's unrelenting, but in a fairly banal, even superficial way: the film is violent enough to be gross but not enough to transform that into something expressive of more than its own grossness; it goes all-in on a singularly obvious theme (some humans are so cruel and savage, that they are basically no more than wild animals...) and it has deeply witless ideas about how to embody them (...which will be evoked by putting them in wolf masks). The film's huge problem is that it's monotonous: other than the melodramatic developments of the third act (which are a deadly combination of ambiguous and corny), it's one thing over and over again, with Wright's steady presence serving to straitjacket the film rather than give it any sort of path out as a character drama. Skarsgård is even more committed to his single note than Wright, and Keough isn't in nearly enough of the film to help it.

As much as a grind as the film mostly is, it gets at least one thing very, very right. The film is mostly a mood piece, watching as Russell descends slowly into the cruel, dark town, and the bleak winter landscape surrounding it. And the atmosphere is completely terrific: Saulnier and cinematography Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (who very recently shot another great atmosphere piece about North American frontier country, Lean on Pete) have taken the word "dark" in the title quite literally and to great effect, capturing the waning Alaskan sun and the reflective possibilities of snow in some truly outstanding scenes of night and dusk. It is a beautiful film, but in an austere, inhuman way; it feels cold and icy, a place where feeling and hope are bleached out by the air itself.

This is, in a sense, just another way of restating the film's problem of being overwhelmingly, pointlessly grim without any real insights or emotional resonance. But at least it has a sense of strong physicality. Saulnier has sacrificed most of his best strengths - his sense of humor, his concise scene construction, his well-defined characters - but at least he's held onto his ability to quickly capture a rural place with a precision that's not quite realism, but grounded enough that it's not quite impressionistic either; the film's depiction of Alaskan desolation is every bit as good as anything Saulnier has yet directed. And thank God for it, or else this would have been pretty well entirely devoid of anything worth engaging with.

*An exception is here made for European art cinema.