The Danish leading man Mads Mikkelson is everywhere these days. Not only did the bleeding-eye villain from Casino Royale play a supporting role in 2018's At Eternity's Gate, in which Willem Dafoe, as Vincent Van Gogh, nabbed a coveted Best Actor nod; he also headlines the current Netflix excrement Polar, directed by Jonas Akerlund. In that horrendous film — a low-rent John Wick in which virtually every scene is offensive or exploitative in some way — Mikkelson plays a hitman on the brink of retirement who must survive attacks from his colleagues because his company wants to avoid paying his pricey pension. Avoid at all costs.
Arctic, by rookie director Joe Penna, is Polar's polar opposite. A grim, spare survivalist epic with almost no dialogue, the film follows in the tradition of J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost, one of my top-five films of 2013. Arctic opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
Mikkelson plays Overgard, whose character origins are irrelevant. What matters is that he is alone in the arctic wilderness after a plane crash some time ago, and now he must survive. He keeps to a rigorous daily routine that we memorize within the film's first 10 minutes. We watch him enlarge and perfect an enormous SOS sign in the ice, tend to ice-fishing holes and consume arctic cod raw, transmit an electronic beacon via hand-crank, all before he puts himself to bed in the fuselage of his downed plane. He begins each day with a pilgrimage to a burial site. He lost someone out there.
When a helicopter attempts to rescue him, it goes down in a wind storm. The crash kills the pilot and severely wounds a passenger (the Icelandic actress Maria Thelma Smaradottir). Overgard, then, confronted with a lack of medical supplies, soon decides to embark on a dicey trek across the tundra to a seasonal scientific outpost to save the woman.
The film portrays most of the encounters you'd expect from a snowy survival story, in fact just about every beat from last year's The Mountain Between Us, in which Kate Winslet and Idris Elba traversed Utah's High Uintas Wilderness: a confrontation with hostile fauna (a polar bear, in this case), a fall through a collapsing snow bank into a cavern, a lack of food, a lack of heat, etc. About the only trope that doesn't find its way into the script is the one where a character tentatively, or else ignorantly, walks over thin ice and plummets into icy water.
The biggest and most unique challenge in Arctic is Overgard's hauling of his unconscious cargo. In the most severe weather, he must not only make shelter for himself, but for the woman whom he's trying to save. In a pivotal scene, he attempts to hoist the sled on which he's hauling her up a steep incline, the other side of which leads to a route that will shave at least three days from their journey. Through these perils, Overgard's constant internal struggle, masterfully and subtly conveyed by Mikkelson, is whether or not to leave the woman behind. This is the heart of the film's tension and the source of its emotional climax. That struggle is compounded by the fact that she is incommunicative, delirious from her wound. Overgard's commands her to squeeze his hand each night, and that's his only clue that she's still alive.
The arctic landscape, incidentally, is filmed as both a hostile and wondrous landscape, vast and gnarled and unknown. Like All Is Lost, the script manages to invest us so thoroughly in the urgency of the moment, the very small tasks that take on existential significance, that we may even forget to ask: Who are these people? and What the hell are they doing out there?