This is a particularly frustrating movie. Elegantly crafted with taut direction, excellent cinematography and a superb cast, its efforts are completely undermined by the lack of a cohesive screenplay- it is literally (sic) all over the place. It begins with a slow, steady pace that is quite hypnotic and purports something quite dramatic and important is coming, but then fails to deliver.
Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who once write a book about living among wolves in the wild, is contacted by a young Alaskan woman, Medora (a rather hauntingly sad Riley Keough), whose son has been taken by wild wolves. She doesn’t expect Core to find her son alive, but hopes he can track down and kill the wolf that took him. Curiosity piqued by her letter (and the location of her remote village being not far from his own estranged daughter, an awkward subplot) Core arrives at the woman’s house and finds the young attractive woman living alone, life-worn and jaded, evidently suffering from a post-trauma illness related to her son’s disappearance.
So far so good, but the film immediately betrays its tendency to farce when Core wakes up during the night to find a naked Medora walking towards him wearing a wooden wolf-mask. She wordlessly slides alongside him and places his hand around her own throat, as if inviting punishment or some masochistic sex game that Core declines. Now, an ordinary man might go straight to his car the next morning and return to the relative sanity of civilization, but instead he goes on a dangerous trek in search of the wolfpack that has allegedly stolen three children from the village.
Following a tense standoff with the wolves when he finally tracks them down, Core struggles through the barren icy wilderness back to the village to find Medora’s home deserted. Exploring the house he enters the cellar and discovers the body of her missing son, wrapped in a sheet. So Medora’s story of wolves is a lie, she killed her son herself and has gone on the run. Following a segue to a violent scene of desert warfare involving Madora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) who seems as proficient killing his own colleagues as he is terrorist insurgents, the villagers seem to be at odds with the local police when Vernon arrives back home intent on killing anyone (villager, police, coroner) who gets in the way of him hunting down his wife. A bewildered Core is trapped in these proceedings like a rabbit in headlights and seemingly cannot escape them.
As the events become wilder, less and less of what happens is explained and I suspect, looking back on it, that I may have missed the point. There is certainly a horror-genre subtext with hints at paganism and unexplained phenomena, indeed perhaps even Lovecraftian undertones. Perhaps there is something of Innsmouth transposed to this arctic, icy landscape. Or perhaps that is just my imagination filling in the blanks left by the increasingly vague, reason-less story.
At any rate, its is a beautiful-looking film and it features some shocking twists and some violent action scenes that are dwelt upon in slow graphic detail. Unfortunately its very ambiguity proves to be, for me, its downfall, as credibility seems to rapidly slide in its last half-hour. Perhaps it is about the darkness of the long Alaskan night staring back at the humans frozen in its landscape, an Apocalypse Now-like tale of staring too long into the abyss. Or maybe there is something genuinely Lovecraftian seducing some of them (or maybe I’m filling in the gaps too much). Perhaps, ultimately, the film tries to overreach itself. I am sure many will watch this film and be enchanted by it, but for me it became a frustrating experience following just one too many twists and turns. Certainly well worth a watch though and one of the better Netflix Originals that I have so far seen.