There are a couple dozen lines of dialogue in Arctic, plus an assortment of grunts. As it happens, we don’t need even that much spoken information: The simplicity of writer/director Joe Penna’s approach and the magnificence of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting is more than enough to make this survival tale a gripping experience.
One of Penna’s best decisions was to lop off the first act of the story. We don’t know how or why a man, played by Mikkelsen (the superb Danish actor from Casino Royale and the TV version of Hannibal), has come to be stranded somewhere in the frozen North. Based on the condition of his wind-battered small plane and the arrangement of his ice-fishing system, it’s been a few weeks. We’re impressed by his organizational skills, and shaken by the presence of a polar bear, whose walk-through cameo is enough to make us anxious for the rest of the film. Then the dynamic changes: A rescue helicopter crashes in bad weather, leaving behind a badly wounded and concussed woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). The chopper also contains a useful sled, some tools, and a map. A map that shows the location of a secure dwelling a few days’ slog across ice and snow.
That slog takes up the latter half of the movie. Here, Penna steers into the stripped-to-the-bone territory of Jack London’s To Build a Fire or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. There is only the task, and the elements, and nothing else. But that task becomes a world unto itself, a heroic effort that contains a moral imperative that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. That the young woman remains semi-comatose during this trek is crucial to the design—as the man faces each steep slope or terrible windstorm, it’s clear that his chances would be much greater if he went it alone. The woman seems about to die, anyway. And yet she is still a human being. And so, it turns out, is he.
Arctic was shot in Iceland (and is not to be confused with the new Netflix movie Polar, also starring Mikkelsen). Its director is Brazilian, which is a good argument against the moronic idea that artists should “stay in their lane” when it comes to subject matter. I confess I’m a sucker for this kind of survival movie; the Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost remains one of my favorite films of recent years (despite the emails I got from a sailor who insisted that Redford did everything wrong as a skipper). Nevertheless, it would be a shame if Arctic got remembered merely as a well-executed genre exercise. Thanks to Penna’s patience and Mikkelsen’s soulful performance, the film blossoms with passages that transcend the suspenseful mechanism of the plot. The moment when Mikkelsen sets the woman down in his airplane for the first time, her head momentarily resting against his, is a great piece of silent-movie acting—something in his face collapses, as though all the unthinkable rigor required to keep himself alive the previous weeks melts at a human touch. He can’t quit her now.
Mikkelsen absolutely carries the film, even without words. With his body and head swaddled in winter gear, he sometimes has only the narrow rectangle around his eyes available for conveying a multitude of complex ideas and emotions. That’s all the space a great actor needs, apparently, because this is a tour de force.
Opens Friday, February 15 | AMC Pacific Place | Rated PG-13