Spoilers for Hold The Dark follow.

Early in John Gray’s The Silence Of Animals, the philosopher tackles the peculiar myth of human progress. It’s a lie, he says, albeit one of the most intoxicating kind. After all, to live inside the myth is to see it as a self-evident fact. “Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere,” Gray writes. “‘Humanity’ is a fiction composed from billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final.”

Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold The Dark, adapted from the novel of the same name by his long-time friend and collaborator Macon Blair, shares that same desire to unpick the story of human uniqueness. Whereas Saulnier’s last film Green Room made the thesis less explicit, slowly peeling away layers of civility to reveal the callous, utterly human propensity for violence hiding underneath, in Hold The Dark, the message is as abrupt and clean as an arrow sailing through a throat. The human characters – amoral drifters whose heroic acts are often indistinguishable in motivation from their cruel ones – are no different from the animals around them. All are capable of the same brutality; of the same simple drive for self-preservation.

Watch the trailer for Hold The Dark here:

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The veneer of civilisation is sanded away quickly in Hold The Dark. Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) has barely finished eating the squares of chocolate proffered to him by the grief addled Medora Slone (Riley Keough) before she is approaching him in the night, naked save for a simple wooden mask, manipulating his hands to wrap around her own throat. The mission Medora sets for Core – to find and avenge her son, who, she alleges, has been taken by wolves – lasts about as long. It’s a red herring, resolved within the film’s first act, as Core stumbles across the boy’s dead body in the basement, murdered not by a wolf, but by another animal – his own mother.

What follows could be described as a revenge story, as Core seeks to find and save Medora before her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), newly returned from war and seemingly keen to seek retribution for the loss of his son, gets to her first. But ‘revenge’ is the wrong word. Vernon isn’t really seeking revenge, as much as Saulnier and Blair might make it initially seem like he is. He is merely killing, the way a wolf kills; the way humans do.

After all, as Core points out early in the film, revenge isn’t part of the natural world. Vernon is just another animal; a man unbridled from the fiction of human morality. He kills police officers; an old friend; a mortician. None of these acts are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, in the traditional sense. They just are. He spares some people – an elderly hotel owner who remembers meeting him as a boy – and kills some has no reason to – Illanaq, a witch woman. His icy unpredictability occasionally calls to mind Anton Chigurh, the antagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, but Vernon is a different beast entirely. Chigurh believed in chance; in fate. Vernon doesn’t even believe in that.

Watch an interview with the cast and crew of Hold The Dark here:

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Even Vernon’s most ‘heroic’ murder – stabbing a fellow soldier who he catches raping a local woman – is presented as a simple, uncomplicated bit of bloodletting. Vernon doesn’t relish it; nor does he seem particularly interested in the plight of the woman he has just saved. He is simply a man who has briefly and accidentally stumbled into the boundaries of the violence society permits. Within moments, he stumbles back out.

Vernon is not alone, either. Cheeon, Vernon’s friend unshackles himself from morality in much the same way – confronted by the police, he calmly and quietly heads to his attic, opens the doors, and slaughters them with a machine gun. The bloodbath is shot coolly – like Peckinpah without the ballet. You could as easily be watching a teenager pick off pigeons with an air rifle. And when it’s all done, when Cheeon is confronted in his attic, his face bloodied with shrapnel, he gives no real explanation for his acts. Neither do Saulnier or Blair. Motivations are unnecessary anyway. Cheeon has simply resolved himself to the realities of human nature.

Then there are Medora’s twin crimes – both birthing and murdering her child. After all, though Saulnier and Blair never make it explicit, it is strongly suggested that Vernon and Medora are brother and sister, their child the product of an incestuous, ‘unnatural’ union. The biggest clue comes early: while leading Core through the woods, the wind whipping through her blonde hair, Medora mentions having no memories that Vernon is not in.

Watch footage from the Hold The Dark premiere here:

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So maybe it is tempting to read Medora’s murder of her child a way of righting a wrong. She has saved him from the dark – from a life as a taboo-shattering, misbegotten progeny. But it is equally as tempting to see the murder and the birth as having no moral weight at all. Incest; matricide; murder. All these things are permissible in nature. We see them happen: Core stumbles across a wolf pack engaged in the act of savaging, mauling one of their own. It is only a flimsy story of ‘ethics’ and progress that stops us from committing such acts all the time; a fear of repercussions that Vernon, Cheeon, and Medora suddenly and starkly see through.

No-one is avenged at the end of Hold The Dark. Nobody is really saved, either. It might be true that Vernon stops himself from murdering Medora, even as she stands there before him, his hands around her throat. But there is no great moral import to him surrendering his desire for vengeance. The act has the eerie echo of Vernon’s earlier stabbing of the rapist: Vernon looks bored, not heroic. Medora is his brood. He is an animal that has briefly recognised that fact. That’s all.

At one point in Hold The Dark, Core surmises that Medora has summoned him to tell her story; to bear witness to it. But what has happened to her is barely a story at all. It has no forward propulsion. It is a series of bloody actions, as devoid of meaning as a pack of wolves tearing apart a cub in the snow, the wind howling around them.

For more Brag content, read the short story ‘Just’, here.