(director: Jeremy Saulnier; screenwriter: Macon Blair/novel by William Giraldi; cinematographer: Magnus Nordenhof Jonck; editor: Julia Bloch; music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair; cast: Jeffrey Wright (Russell Core), Riley Keough (Medora Slone), Alexander Skarsgard (Vernon), James Badge Dale (Donald Marium), Julian Black Antelope (Cheeon), Peter McRobbie (Hunter John), Tantoo Cardinal (Illanaq), Macon Blair (Shan), Jonathan Whitesell (Arnie), Anabel Kutay (Iraqi Woman), Savonna Spracklin (Susan, wife Marium); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Russell Ackerman, John Schoenfelder, Eva Maria Daniels, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani; Netflix; 2018)

“Ambitious pulp fiction thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The talented Jeremy Saulnier (“Green Room”/”Blue Ruin”) admirably helms this ambitious pulp fiction thriller as a dreamlike gory noir film that gets into mythology and brutality, as if they were connected. Writer Macon Blair, the director’s longtime collaborator, adapts it from William Giraldi’s 2014 grizzly wilderness novel.

It works best for its stunning set pieces and the nasty Alaskan wilderness mood it sets, but falters on the whole because its whole never matches its parts. In December 2004, in the remote Alaskan village of Keelut (filmed in Alberta, Canada), there’s a problem with wolves. When an Army wife named Medora Slone (Keough) finds that her 6-year-old son (Beckam Crawford) vanished in a probable wolf abduction, she contacts by letter the retired naturalist author and wildlife tracker of wolves Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) to track down and kill the pack of wolves responsible, as the local authorities are useless. The depressed Core has family problems with his estranged college teacher daughter in Anchorage and accepts because he identifies with the mother’s misery and uses the excuse he’s in Alaska to see if he can visit his daughter. At her home, Medora seems as nutty as a Mad Hatter, wandering around the house nude at night and in a wolf mask.

That Core still stays, tells me his pain cuts in a way mine does not and that this will be a strange film. Mendora’s violent Army husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), with serious mental issues and armed with a big hunting knife, returns from war duty in Iraq, after efficiently gunning down in a tank a car of militants. He gets an honorable discharge after receiving a neck wound from a sniper in an ambush and knifing a fellow American soldier raping a local Iraqi woman. Vernon returns to find his wife has run off and that the stranger Core, wearing his snow boots, finds his dead son in the cellar of his house and that he was not killed by wolves.

This sets off a cycle of violence that will claim the lives of many Alaskans, as Vernon in revenge takes the law into his own hands and goes after the inept city cops he hates and the villagers who didn’t protect his beloved child. He’s helped in his getaway by his Indian best friend Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope). The investigating cop from the nearby city, Don Marium (James Badge Dale), an honorable cop, gets his department to go after Vernon while the curious Core tags along as they check-out Cheeon. What follows is the film’s centerpiece, a bloody shootout in the village between the machine gun wielding cop hating Cheeon and the police, that the newspaper headlines call “The massacre in Keelut.”

It’s an unforgettable bleak mood film about revenge, native mysticism, the fear of outsiders, the fear that there will be no children in the village to give hope for the future, and of the violence inherent in the primitive Alaskan culture. It’s set in a desolate place more fit for wolves than people, a land where civilization is not completely accepted and where violence is the norm. It’s an alarming place where even love, closure or revenge may not be possible.

REVIEWED ON 12/1/2018 GRADE: B+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/