It seems that I just can’t get enough of one Mads Mikkelsen and Netflix. This production is the second of his I have checked out on the streaming service this year: the first was similarly titled, but very regrettable, Polar. Mikkelsen did all that he could with that property, but it is safe to say that it was one globe too heavy for Atlas.
However, the premise of Arctic seemed much more manageable for someone like him, even if it lined him up to essentially be the one man in a one-man show. Industry stories have abounded of this being the toughest shoot of the actor’s career, and all under the direction of a man, Joe Penna, known almost entirely for Youtube work, music videos and Coca Cola ads (who originally wanted to set the story on Mars). A difficult shooting location, limited cast numbers, non-existent script and a greenhorn at feature films: all the ingredients were there for Arctic to be a disaster, and yet with someone like Mikkelsen you always feel as if the opposite is more likely to be true.
Overgard (Mikkelsen) survives alone somewhere in the Arctic Circle following a plane crash. His daily routine is dedicated to attracting rescue and staying alive, but when a nearby helicopter crash results in one badly wounded survivor (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) that urgently needs medical attention, Overgard must brave a desperate journey to a distant refuge.
There are ups and down to Arctic, positives and negatives. On the one hand it occasionally struggles with its lack of words, and there are times when the way it lingers on certain shots or on certain plot-points starts to lose you. But on the other, Penna and Mikkelsen have manages to turn a simple story about trying to survive in a hostile environment into a discourse on the depths of loneliness and the importance of human connection.
We begin with a first act where Overgard is alone. The film drops you into the middle of his desperate plight, just another day alone in the wreckage of a crashed plane. It is never made clear how long Overgard has been there, but between the beard, the malnutrition and the missing toes, it has clearly been a while. We go through Overgard’s daily routine, that he undertakes with stone-faced practicality and professionalism: clearing the overnight snow away from his giant “S.O.S” symbol; checking his fish traps; manually cranking a distress transmitter; mapping as much of the immediate area as he is able to get to. An alarm on his watch beeps whenever he has something else to do: it’s survivalism by appointment.
What’s great about this sequence is how the central figure and director manage to imbue so much in such simple gestures. Overgard removes rocks from his S.O.S with a weariness that indicates how it has become a Sisyphean task to him. When he catches a fish, for a few precious moments he holds the still living animal in his hands, as if he is glorying in his sudden companionship with another living creature, a companionship that, by biological necessity, cannot last too long. When he cranks his transmitter, he does so with the glazed expression of one for whom the task has become a monotonous, almost unwelcome, bore. As he maps the area, we become aware of just how small of a world the man actually inhabits.
Mikkelsen is tremendous in the lead role. He is tasked with getting across the sense that Overgard is merely surviving, and not living: that his existence in this icy purgatory is one that is unworthy of any person who wants to still identify as human. He must take us from a being who has become literally and metaphorically numb to what has happened to him, to someone who decides it would be better for them to die trying than to sit in his battered plane and eventually freeze and/or starve to death. Mikkelsen does all this and more, making do without words for the vast majority of the running time: hell, we only know his name because it’s stenciled on his jacket. He truly is one of the greats, and his showing here more than makes up for the dross he had to try and make good on in Polar. Maybe it is all in the face: Mikkelsen’s is just so chiseled, so weighted by experience, that he really is the perfect man for this kind of part. You can’t take your eyes off of him.
Things change for Overgard when a helicopter, flying into a wind sheer in an effort to rescue him, crashes, killing the pilot and leaving the unnamed co-pilot badly wounded. The two turn out to be a couple with a young child at home: in a pointed comparison, Overgard learns this information from a photo in the downed helicopter, whereas he has no such accouterments in his own wreckage, indicating a man who has little to live for at home. Smaradottir – credited only as “Young Woman” – doesn’t have to do much but keep her eyes closed: Mikkelsen remains largely on his own for the rest of the picture in terms of the acting craft. The most exuberant he ever gets is when he catches an especially big fish, and yet he is able to conjure so much with a look in the eye and a glance in a certain direction. It would be easy for this to become DiCaprio in The Revenant, all screams of anguish and little else, but Mikkelsen delivers something more patient, more fraught and more affecting than that.
After a period where Overgard tries to continue as he has done, just with a patient to care for, we reach the real meat of the premise, as the two must attempt to reach rescue pro-actively, using a map in the crashed helicopter. Or rather, Overgard must, carrying the “Young Woman” behind him on a sled. What follows is essentially Overgard’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, as Arctic becomes an episodic adventure through the various dangers of an icy wasteland, where he even gets his own antagonist in the form of a polar bear that goes from stealing his fish to wanting the main course. There are drifts to walk through, cliffs to scale, and crevices to climb your way out of, but the real drama of these moments is much more human.
If Overgard was to cut the Young Woman loose and leave her to her fate in the snow, he could probably get to the outpost without too much in the way of serious drama. The choice facing him is unspoken, but obvious to anyone with half a brain, especially when he considers what appears to be an easy route to safety that the prone Young Woman cannot take. Arctic’s final act is about how important humanity is to Overgard, and whether he can bring himself to let go of his altruistic burden in return for physical safety. There is a natural tension created out of this that drives the film through its last 30 or so minutes, and on to an appropriately uncertain conclusion. The difference between surviving and being alive is more than just physical well-being, its the difference between being human and being dead inside.
Penna, with Tómas Örn Tómasson beside him in the cinematographer’s chair, has the Arctic surrounds as his canvass, though it is, in fact, the just-outside-the-Arctic-circle surrounds of rural Iceland in reality. It’s a mix of The Thing and Castaway in terms of the environment/person dynamic at play. His camera does not have to do all that much to find spectacular visages, as brown rocked mountains jut out of seas of white, and the distances appear vast and unrelenting, as they are. As Overgard goes about his day he appears as an insignificant speck in such an icy ocean.
And yet Penna has craft in him for the closer shots as well, inside the wrecked fuselages of the crash sites and the ice cave that forms a pit stop on the way to the outpost. They are filled with distinction and character, and that’s before a polar bear sticks its head in (and unless that was a very advanced animatronic, how terrifying a scene must that have been to film?). And when the camera needs to be locked on Mikkelsen, or to a lesser extent Smaradottir, it is locked, with a patience and trust in the principal that calls to mind Steve McQueen and 12 Years A Slave.
Arctic has its issues for sure. For one thing it is longer than it really needs to be, and it does, on a few brief occasions, stray into the unwelcome realms of misery porn. But these are fleeting problems really. This is a commanding, skillful performance from one of today’s best living actors, engaged in a story that represents significant traditional drama and an interesting investigation of what it means to be human. It’s shot very well, and given the lack of dialogue that the director and cast have to tell their story with, making Arctic an almost silent production, it’s very impressive how the film is able to reach inside and toy with your emotions.
In essence, the viewer becomes Overgard and is presented with his journey, his actions and his choices: we must ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation, with Arctic challenging us to consider the unlikely and the undesirable. For this, I must deem it a triumph, and I eagerly away Penna’s next feature effort, should he choose to make one. As for Mikkelsen, I would watch him cook fish for 90 minutes if given the opportunity. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of XYZ Films).