'Arctic' Won't Soothe Winter Anxiety, but We Can Keep Mads Mikkelsen Company Directed by Joe Penna
Starring Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Thelma Smáradóttir
Published Feb 20, 2019A February Canadian release for a movie like Arctic has potential for risks and rewards. As audiences here are struggling with temperatures below 30 degrees Celsius, seeing beloved cult actor Mads Mikkelsen's own battle against the elements could drum up a few different reactions. Seeing him go up against the beautiful, desolate and dangerous landscape of on-location Iceland might inspire some to identify with his plight, or this simple survival story could merely remind everyone of the harsh winds outside the theatre.
At least most audiences won't be enduring the cold in isolation. Mikkelsen's character, nameable only by the patch reading "Overgård" on his jacket, has been surviving on his own for a bit. He's living in a crashed plane in a barren, snow-covered valley, pulling fish from holes in the ice and eating them raw, taking scheduled intervals to crank an emergency signal or carve a giant SOS in the ground. In a land without real night, he lives by his watch, going to bed, eating and moving on to the next activity by its beeping in a well-worn rhythm.
To continue on like that would make for a small movie — watching a man so focused on what keeps him alive in this place for another day that he never takes time to feel. I imagine the poster tagline for this version of the movie to be "Who Is Overgård?," setting imaginations across the world aflame.
Instead, he makes contact with other people for the first time in a long time, but without the possibility of being saved because of it. The resulting chaos wakes him, pushes him to action and tests his limits.
The filmmakers are a fresh bunch. Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison co-wrote Arctic; former directed, the latter edited. Neither is credited with a feature before, and the work they do here is all to showcase Mikkelsen, the true author of the film.
The actor might be courting slight confusion with this coming out to so shortly after Netflix released Polar, a much different film where he plays Edgelord John Wick. Hopefully, Arctic comes to overshadow that film –– he's doing very fine and detailed work here.
Mikkelsen's largest roles are defined by a certain cool and stillness, "bemused" being the hottest his emotions run in some projects. He doesn't start out so far from that here, though as he's pushed, the veneer breaks down. His character's routine masks a frailty, a yearning vulnerability. Once the fragile order is disrupted, his need to be with another person is so clear, the weight of his solitude having crushed him for so long.
Wide landscape shots centre him, speaking to his isolation and the unlikeliness of salvation. In moments, the filmmakers cycle through similar shots during scenes, reinforcing the monotony of the situation or just repeating themselves. Arctic is light on material and doesn't give Mikkelsen a lot to react against. What it does do is build a frame for a performance of note from Mikkelsen.
In the beginning, he's literally hidden, his face covered to protect him from the cold. As the film progresses, his guard drops and the actor builds the arc of rediscovering his need for humanity. Arctic is a plain survival story, but Mikkelsen's doing great work at its core that shows his strength and range.