When Danish acting powerhouse Mads Mikkelsen showed up for an extended cameo in last year’s Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate as a priest providing comfort and advice to the disturbed artist, it made me realize that I genuinely missed seeing Mikkelsen’s face on the big screen since his one-two blockbuster appearances in Doctor Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, both from 2016. And now you can catch him in the twisted Netflix action film Polar and his current theatrical treat Arctic, from first-time feature director Joe Penna, a Brazilian-born YouTube filmmaker, who has made a series of very popular shorts and shows. Here, he has a real gift for visuals and pacing, in a film sparsely populated by dialogue.
As the film begins, Mikkelsen’s Overgård has already been stranded in the arctic after a plane crash has left him the only survivor. He seems skilled in taking care of himself and setting up a timed schedule that allows him to devote a certain number of hours per day to the tasks necessary to stay alive, such as carving out a massive “SOS” in the snow, fishing for food, hand-cranking his radio to see if there is anyone out there looking for him, and, of course, sleeping. We get as accustomed to the sound of the alarm on his watch as he does, and soon realize that being that devoted to staying on track is what has kept him alive for so long.
One day, quite unexpectedly, a helicopter shows up during a wind storm, and in an attempt to land near him, it crashes, leaving a young woman on board (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) severely injured. Overgård drags her back to his makeshift camp to care for her. At a certain point, he realizes that the only way either of them is going to make it through this ordeal is to leave the comfort of his shelter and attempt to walk to the nearest outpost, which is days away with a great deal of unknown terrain in between. He builds the woman a gurney-like sled and begins dragging her into the snowy, frigid unknown.
Co-written by Penna and Ryan Morrison, Arctic is a deceptively simple character study that gives us just enough information about Overgård to help us understand why he seems so prepared for every situation, making him the perfect savior for this young woman. The film may sound similar to 2017’s The Mountain Between Us, with Idris Elda and Kate Winslet; the big difference is that there’s no ridiculous love story wedged into Arctic, a film that propels its heightened drama with only a fraction of the dialogue. Most of the time when Mikkelsen speaks, it feels like he’s doing so to remind himself what a voice sounds like, or to keep himself company and not go insane from the silence.
Along the brutal journey to safety, the pair battle cold, treacherous terrain, and the hungry local wildlife. All the while, Mikkelsen keeps his cool, even when it’s clear he has every reason to give up hope. It’s a performance that almost can’t be judged by other performances, because it’s as much an endurance test as it is an acting exercise. Even if the movie does nothing for you (which seems impossible), you’ll admire his perseverance and ability to stay upright, emote and keep moving from scene to scene. I’ll fully admit being a sucker for survival movies like this, but the beautifully, starkly photographed Arctic goes beyond your typical “roughing-it” films to give us a raw tale of determination (bordering on stubbornness) and the outright refusal to die or let another die in one’s care. It’s inspirational, even though I know I could never pull off what this man does.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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