Joe Penna’s Arctic trades in one of our finest global cinematic exports: the expressive, beautifully-worn topography of Mads Mikkelsen’s face. In this survival story, the actor is distilled down to his essence, barely speaking and without even the most minuscule character background to build audience allegiance. But after wide-ranging material spanning all kinds of genres from The Hunt to the short lived series Hannibal, Arctic is the firmest proof that Mikkelsen is one of our most naturally compelling performers.
This showcase for the leading man spotlights him with a narrative stripped down to its disaster film essentials. Mikkelsen stars as a man we eventually learn is named Overgård, stranded alone after his plane crashes in a frozen wasteland. His rituals for survival are overturned when his rescue vehicle also collapses, leaving a young woman from the crew in critical condition. Her illness sets his off on an odyssey against the elements and his own resolve to cross the dangerous terrain to a communication station miles away.
It’s not only the thrillingly sparse performance by Mikkelsen that helps set Arctic apart. What would seem on the surface to be an overly familiar genre exercise is ultimately undermined by a few key avoidances of formula. The film begins well after the initial crash, avoiding any background on the protagonist and any flashy set piece theatrics. Rather, it’s this second character who is given a life away from this frozen isolation. The hero survives not just for himself, but to save another.
The humanity of survival becomes grimly enough. Whereas disaster films often serve to lift the spirit, Arctic is determined for something darker, taking its hero to the brink of existential and physical collapse. This is not the kind of human triumph built to comfort.
Despite the physical whiteout of the landscape, Penna finds surprising visual variety as the tension builds throughout. Joseph Trapanese shadows the film with an unobtrusive and nearly nonstop score, one that avoids comforting melody and cliche. On top of the film’s impressive craft, Penna keeps the film brief and relentless enough to make us forget (or forgive) the beats that it does follow along with what we have come to expect from such a film.
But it is the haggard and steadfast image of Mikkelsen continuing past brokenness that makes Arctic a worthwhile trip to frozen hell. If what happens to him doesn’t linger, the light that fades from his eyes surely does.