Wolves are dangerous, but people are worse in Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold The Dark where the darkness being held comes from within.
Hold The Dark is a brutal trek into the cold, beating heart of darkness. The deliberately ambiguous ending is rife with meaning and wolf mythology. Humans as wolf packs are all the rage right now. Showtime’s Yellowjackets shows the nastiness of high school pack mentality turned necessary survival hierarchy. As an animal that was eventually domesticated and resulted in the pets we have now, the lives of humans and wolves have always been intertwined. Wolves are wild, dangerous, and savage. There is a term for their brutality. It is not uncommon for wolves to eat their young. Wolves will eat their pups when resources are scarce. It is a way to protect the pack. The term is savaging, and it is barbaric in a way humans can’t understand.
What humans can understand all too well, though, is violence. The violence of war, crime, injustice, and the occasional violence of mental illness. Hold The Dark is about the darkness possible in us all. Between the ambiguous ending and the many questions throughout, Launier’s film requires a lot of dissecting. Here’s everything you need to know about wolf mythology, blood magic, and the truth about Vernon and Medora in Hold The Dark.
Medora first contacts Russell, a wolf expert, to help locate her son, who, along with several other children, has gone missing in her small Alaskan town. She is visibly odd, and shortly after searching Russell finds her son, Bailey strangled in their cabin. Upon hearing of his son’s death and being injured in war, Vernon returns home to hunt down his wife, leaving a pile of bodies behind him.
Vernon and Medora were connected by more than just marriage
In a shocking twist, Vernon(Alexander Skarsgård) and Medora are heavily implied to be siblings. Although it isn’t explicitly stated, everything from the childhood pictures to the story the man tells Vernon when he is hunting Medora points to this. This could also be the darkness Medora is so afraid of. A child of incest would carry a stigma, and Medora may feel intense guilt over her relationship with her brother. In the book, Hold The Dark is based on, there is no ambiguity. Medora has a mental break due to her guilt over her incestuous affair with Vernon and strangles Bailey to save him. In Saulnier’s film, things are much murkier.
Are Vernon and Medora performing blood magic?
Vernon and Cheeon put bloody symbols on Bailey’s coffin after stealing his body. We know from several people in and around Keelut that they believe there is evil there. A dark magic that some have tried to harness. This may be how Vernon and Medora first summoned the wolf spirit. Although unlikely, Vernon and Medora may have taken Bailey’s body into the woods with them to perform some sort of ritual, turning him into a wolf demon too.
Why did Medora kill her son?
Medora asks Russell for help because he will kill her. She knows what she is doing is wrong, and her human side is horrified by what she has done but is powerless to control it. She thinks Russell will uniquely be equipped to stop her. Everything you need to know about her intentions is in her opening monologue. There is a chilling indifference to Medora that Riley Keough does so well. She has made a name for herself in genre films like The Lodge, and It Comes At Night which lean heavily into themes of mental illness and evil. However, this might be her best performance showcasing just how “off” Medora is. The otherness to her is palpable. It isn’t hard to imagine her hands around her child’s neck.
She calls Russell to catch the wolves because she wants to be caught. There is a piece of her that longs to join her son. This is why she puts Russell’s hands around her neck. She puts on the wolf mask because she tells Russell she has two sides. The woman and the wolf and both must be killed. Worse still is the possibility that Medora is simply lonely and unstable. She killed her son to lure Vernon back home. Her tears may only be tears of loneliness, and her advances on Russell were nothing but sexual. We see Vernon place his hands on Medora in the cave in the same way she tried to get Russell too. Medora is a sick woman who was always more concerned with Vernon than Bailey.
Why don’t the wolves attack Russell in Hold The Dark?
The wolves never wanted to hurt Russell. This is obvious from several exchanges with both two actual wolf packs and Vernon and Medora. When Russell fell down the hill when he saw the wolf pack eating a pup, he was vulnerable. He had lost his rifle initially, and the pack could easily have attacked him. Instead, they looked at him and retreated. Vernon could have killed him when he killed the police officers but instead let him continue searching. Next, Cheeon(Julian Black Antelope) goes on a shooting spree killing nearly every officer in town; he spares Russell. Vernon shoots Russell with an arrow in the final act, but the wound isn’t fatal, and Russell removes the arrow and lets him leave. Russell and Medora had no problem killing people, so why did they let him live?
If you buy into the theory that Vernon and Medora are Tournaq, Tornit, or wolf demons, they elect to spare Russell because he respects the wolf. He was never involved with anything that happened and came at Medora’s request. Like the animals, Vernon and Medora see the goodness in Russell and want to allow him to return to his pack. His daughter is the representation of that pack.
The explanation still works if you don’t believe Vernon and Medora are wolves or demons. They have no beef with Russell, and he came to help Medora, so the couple elects to spare him to tell their story. Medora even asks him if he sees the sky is wrong now at the end. She is desperate for someone to understand what happened to her and Bailey.
Keelut, Alaska is a fictional place based on many remote small villages in Alaska. Curiously Keelut is also the name for an evil spirit of death. It is a large, black hairless dog that stalks its prey in winter. Although wolf imagery plays heavily in the film, this is an obvious nod to what Vernon and Medora plan on doing with their dead son. After Vernon shot the officers and walked out with Bailey’s body, he and Cheeon marked the makeshift coffin with blood. In the end, Vernon and Medora walk off together, dragging Bailey’s coffin. They may be bringing him to the afterlife. Although Medora killed her son to spare him from the growing darkness, they loved him and wanted to allow him a chance at an afterlife.
There is something wrong with Keelut. Whether it is the isolation, unbearable cold, endless dark, or extreme poverty, this is a place that breeds sickness. Sickness in the heart, body, and mind. Medora tells Russell that two other kids went missing before her son. Their bodies were never found. Did wolves take them, or did Medora kill them as well? Considering that Medora did not hide her dead son and seemed genuinely remorseful, if not regretful, I doubt she was responsible.
We know she thinks some horrible darkness was growing in her son, and he did ask his father what it was like to kill a human. Although unlikely, in this desolate place, it is possible that someone the Sloanes knew killed the other kids, and wolves took care of the carcasses later. This may be the darkness Medora was so worried about. It is also possible the parents of the other children similarly killed their kids as Medora.
Some people are predators. They are wolves. They are made of darkness and pain. What events led to Vernon and Medora getting married? What darkness in their past led to the bleak present? We will never know, but some evil can’t be outrun. Maybe you can stop the moonlight, but you can’t stop the darkness once it’s started growing inside you. Hold The Dark is on Netflix right now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.