Arctic joins the ranks of other one-man-against-nature movies like 127 Hours and All is Lost, and I can totally understand if you’re not into that. On the one hand, these movies can be exhausting; I saw 127 Hours at a 24-hour movie marathon at the AMC Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and I fainted, and it was very embarrassing. But um I AM NOT A FAN of watching someone cut off their own arm! Even if that person is James Franco! And although I am a Robert Redford devotee, All is Lost makes its point once, and then over and over again: Life is precious, life is worth living, life is a struggle and a gift.
Arctic is the same idea, but transplanted to a different location, this time in the icy wasteland of the far north instead of the desert of 127 Hours or the vast ocean of All is Lost. And that location change (the film was shot in Iceland’s highlands) allows for writer and director Joe Penna to depict survival methods with which we may not be familiar: setting lines, using electric wire, to catch fish underneath the ice, cranking a radio to try and send out a signal, comparing various maps to pinpoint exact locations.
And with extremely limited dialogue, Mads Mikkelsen has to sell all of this—all of the grueling choices and ingenious ways his character, Overgård, devises to survive—using only his face and his body. Mikkelsen is more than up to the task, delivering a performance here that is the centerpiece of a purposefully sparse film, in contrast to the bombastic absurdity of his other recent movie, Netflix’s Polar. Sure, we got numerous butt shots in that movie. But the better Mads performance is in this one.
The plot is simple, with only a few details that emerge over the film’s 98-minute runtime. We first meet Overgård digging in the snow, slamming a shovel to crack open great mounds of ice, moving all the frozen material from one spot to another. The surroundings are grey, bleak, desolate, and yet Overgård keeps at it, dividing snow and rocks, wearing a burnt and blackened parka, checking his watch every so often as he works. It takes a few minutes, but finally we see his efforts: a gigantic SOS created out of black rocks, huge enough to see from an airplane or a helicopter flying overhead, an attempt at communication in a place that seems utterly forgotten.
What are Overgård’s choices? He’s living out of his crashed airplane, but the snow and wind are constant, and the conditions are brutal (Mikkelsen lost 15 pounds during filming). He’s running out of food. There is a polar bear lurking on the edges of his camp (in real life, a 22-year-old bear named Aggie, whom I obviously want to befriend!). And while there is a permanent outpost somewhere nearby, it seems outlandishly far to travel alone, trudging through the snow and ice, in a landscape with which Overgård isn’t familiar. Could he make it? Should he even try?
Arctic’s narrative is so sparse that to give away much more would veer into spoiler territory, and even though the trailer shares some of these plot details, I won’t. And Penna does an excellent job capturing the beauty and horror of this place; if you watched AMC’s The Terror and thought to yourself, as I did, “Huh, this is really gorgeous, in an existential, I’m going to die out here way,” then Arctic is the movie for you! The wide angle shots are exquisite, the cinematography communications the isolation of this place, and there are a few scary moments and harrowing situations that upend the narrative flow and legitimately rattled me.
Suffice to say that the film is about a man considering what it takes to survive, and that man is Mads Mikkelsen, and isn’t that enough for you people? Arctic is a one-man showcase for the acting that we know Mikkelsen is capable of, and although it doesn’t deviate much from the formula of the survival subgenre, it’s power comes from his performance.
Arctic is currently playing in limited release around the U.S.
Image sources (in order of posting): Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street