It doesn’t take long for Joe Penna’s “Arctic” to establish itself as one of the best movies ever made about a man stranded in the wilderness. In fact, there’s a small but crystalline moment in the first act (some 15 or 20 minutes in, maybe) when this hellishly cold portrait of human endurance claws ahead of the pack and never looks back.
The context is easy to describe — the conflict frozen across Mads Mikkelsen’s face is not. The Danish star, throwing himself into an Iceland shoot that could probably make for a compelling survival story unto itself, plays a downed pilot named Overgård. The nearly wordless film starts at some point after his plane has crashed into a deep white valley in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the accident took place, but it’s obvious that our hero has been out there for longer than most of us could ever hope to last.
From the very first scene, the busted fuselage has already been converted into a homey little shelter that could pass for a decent one-bedroom in Brooklyn. Overgård has had time to dig out a massive S.O.S. in the snow, and to fill a freezer with the bony fish he’s snagged from beneath the ice. He’s had time to stack a pile of ugly black stones into a small grave for someone whose identity we never learn — likely a co-pilot, but we’re left to assume. There’s no way of knowing if Overgård was clean-shaven before the crash, but he wears his beard well (the elegant slope of Mikkelsen’s face makes the icicles look like jewelry).
And then — as Overgård is trying to stab a trout in a snowstorm — he spots a rescue helicopter cutting its way towards him. It promptly crashes, the winds driving the chopper headfirst into the ground. Maybe there are some places where people just shouldn’t fly.
This is when “Arctic” starts to thaw into something unexpectedly rich and humane; one perfect reaction shot is all it takes for Penna’s debut feature to prove itself more lucid than “127 Hours” and more dynamic than “All Is Lost” (admittedly a low bar to clear). You expect Overgård to sprint over the nearest ridge so he can get a clear view of the wreckage, but… he doesn’t. On the contrary, he just stands in place, as though his feet were stuck to the snow.
Cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson, always opting for a steadiness that belies the chaos of Overgård’s situation, trains his camera on Mikkelsen’s static face. It’s like he’s short-circuiting for a second. The disappointment in his eyes is obvious, but we also note the lack of disbelief — how surprising can a disaster really be after so many days spent waiting for death? Plus, Overgård is totally wiped out. Even a rugged and resourceful MacGyver type like him might not have the strength to save anyone. Besides, that was supposed to be their job!
Of course he eventually does the right thing, but that fleeting hesitation is enough to sell us on Overgård’s fragility. Penna’s script, co-written with Ryan Morrison, doesn’t need a flimsy backstory to explain why this guy wants to live, or what it might take to rekindle his fading hopes. Penna recognizes that certain scenarios are so complete that any kind of additional motivation tends to smell bad.
One of the two helicopter pilots is still alive (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), if only just. She’s got an infected wound on her abdomen, but she also has a lighter and some noodles. That’s a great recipe for a hot meal. Suddenly, those mountains in the distance start too look a little closer. And so they set off to a distant point on the map, Overgård tobogganing his silent new friend across the Arctic like some kind of frozen Fitzcarraldo. They exit the crash site, pursued by a polar bear.
Initially written as a sci-fi adventure set on Mars (before everyone involved came to their senses), “Arctic” works because it’s so believable. The movie never cheats or takes shortcuts — in fact, Overgård and his living cargo are forced to take the long way round. Penna has packed the film with incident and excitement, even making room for a bear attack sequence that puts “The Revenant” to shame, but even the most Hollywood moments obey a certain logic.
More than that, Penna finds ways to infuse real drama into potentially mundane details. We always know where the characters are and what’s at stake with each step, so that watching Mikkelsen turn a sled into a makeshift shelter achieves the excitement of a major setpiece. The photo Overgård finds of the pilot with her husband and baby — at first a maudlin touch — comes to assume a genuine emotional heft. Some credit for that belongs to Joseph Trapanese’s low and stirring score, but the brunt of its power exists between Mikkelsen and the man he’s playing. Overgård needs someone to live for, even if he’s not the person who ultimately needs to live for them.
It’s broad stuff, and well-trod terrain for a movie that takes place in uncharted territory, but it cuts straight to the difference between endurance and survival. Movies like this are typically only exciting because the hero might die. “Arctic” is so compelling because Overgård might not.
“Arctic” premiered in the Midnight section of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release it in the United States later this year.