by Ken Bakely
Survival dramas occupy a particular space as stories: their formal minimalism is often a key element, but this contrasts against the epic scope of the actual plot, considering that it’s about a struggle with the collective scale of nature itself. In Joe Penna’s Arctic, this juxtaposition is taken even further, as we’re given almost no information and thrust into the action at a point in the journey where our protagonist’s hope is already diminishing fast. We start with only one character, Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen), whose backstory is not known. We only know that he has been stranded in the Arctic following a plane crash; the questions of what happened and how long he has been there are mysteries that the movie purposely doesn’t engage. For a while, it’s him against the frightening scale of extreme cold and barren land, as Tómas Örn Tómasson’s breathtaking cinematography envelops us in the frozen white around Overgård, never missing an opportunity to show us how small humans are in comparison to these surroundings. As if this were not enough, a rescue helicopter that spots Overgård crashes when attempting to land. The pilot is killed, and the other rescue worker onboard (María Thelma Smáradóttir) is badly wounded. Now, the survival mission takes on a new, even more challenging dynamic: not only must Overgård keep fighting for his life, but he must care for another person, who is gravely injured and nearly comatose.
It’s a fascinating pursuit in its narrative simplicity and genuinely gripping in its execution. Much of this is thanks to Mikkelsen’s astonishing performance. In a mostly wordless turn, he is a captivating presence through the grueling tests he endures. His body language and his expressions convey Overgård’s humanness – and a visceral knowledge of mortality which the character has become deeply acquainted with over the course of these events – with a dedication is haunting and brutal to watch. Penna, in his directorial debut, has the control to let us closely observe Mikkelsen as he works through the physical and mental burden his character must bear, with the young woman now with him conveying how his surviving no longer just concerns his own life. Arctic is an effective drama, difficult but never miserable for its own sake. Penna strives for a careful and precise spareness, which presents us with only the minimum of what we must know, and in the film’s most accomplished moments, it’s an experience that communicates with us and shows us the extent of the movie’s world without scripting clichés or oversimplified themes intruding on what we see. While there are times – especially towards the movie’s end – when it veers too close to something more blandly conventional, what’s come before has been both so confident and ambitious for a first feature outing that, with Mikkelsen’s stunning work, nothing is ever taken too far off the path.
There’s something to be said about what’s accomplished in a movie that’s at its best when things are kept as minimalistic in presentation as possible. When Penna’s outlook is solely fixed on communicating the staggering dynamics that human survival would require in this location, the film can be truly captivating to watch. The environment is photographed and presented with an eye to the setting’s self-evident, imposing status, allowing that intimidating of space to carry through. This is the kind of movie where such an approach is most warranted, reducing what we’re being exposed to, in a sense, what Overgård is being exposed to. However, it’s also the complexity of what we don’t know that is carefully worked with as well. His motivations and personal convictions aren’t known; the character is a true blank slate, as he is alone or with someone who is either in too fragile a state to communicate, or separated by a language barrier when the two do connect. Yet though we know little about the people we see onscreen, Penna has a clear purpose for this approach, instead of merely obfuscating for the sake of obfuscation. We don’t bring any assumptions to the proceedings, and don’t assume that any particular events or developments will happen. The objective here, and the method that it uses to achieve it, is much more focused than that. Arctic, through its technical expertise and the sheer power of its lead performance, conveys an engaging and meaningful story about the bounds of human endurance in even the most impossible of scenarios.