REVIEW: Arctic (2019)

Danish Theatrical Release Poster – United International Pictures

The following is a review of Arctic — Directed by Joe Penna.

To some, Mads Mikkelsen, known outside of his home country for his roles in the NBC-series Hannibal and the James Bond-film Casino Royale, is the quintessential villain. A European character actor that, from time to time, takes on roles in blockbuster films and elevates the material. To others, like A. O. Scott once wrote, Mads Mikkelsen is the face of Danish cinema. The Copenhagen-born dancer-turned-actor has earned himself a strong reputation outside of Denmark, with such successes as winning the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his performance in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt.

With Arctic, Mikkelsen has taken on a mostly silent role in a film the type of which has previously earned American awards season attention to actors like James Franco and Robert Redford. Though Mads Mikkelsen isn’t likely to receive many nominations for this film due to the lack of attention it is getting, he is breathtaking in the beautifully shot, quietly captivating, and, in moments, deeply moving film from feature film debut director Joe Penna — a YouTuber who has given us an ice-cold film that somehow still has a beating heart.

Joe Penna’s Arctic, not to be confused with Jonas Åkerlund’s Polar (also starring Mads Mikkelsen), follows the mostly silent protagonist, Overgård (played by Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish man stranded in the middle of nowhere in the great white Arctic. It isn’t made entirely clear how long he’s been there, but there are a couple of visual clues that indicate that he’s been stuck there for a while: he has made a huge S.O.S.-sign on the ground next to a crash-landed plane within which he sleeps, he catches fish from holes in the ice, and he has placed this rock-sculpture as a headstone for some unknown person who lost his life before Penna’s film began.

While out and about in the cold wilderness, he spots a helicopter in the distance and he excitedly tries to signal it towards him. However, just as it seems Overgård’s hopes and dreams are about to come true, the helicopter crashes violently. One of its two pilots dies in the crash, but Overgård rescues the other pilot — an injured nameless young woman (played by María Thelma Smáradóttir) who doesn’t understand the lost Dane — and brings her back to his camp. When it becomes clear that she is unlikely to survive the wait for an increasingly unlikely rescue helicopter, Overgård makes a decision.

Though he may be able to survive the wait, she most certainly is not. Therefore, Overgård decides to risk his own safety for the first human contact he’s encountered in the white wilderness. He challenges the grueling cold of the Arctic and charts a course to a distant point on his map. There is just one problem. Overgård will have to drag his new companion on a sled all the way, while danger is all around them in the form of freezing cold, ice, and a polar bear.

Arctic‘s steady cinematography will make you appreciate slowly melting but beautiful snowy landscapes. These incredible shots of the white wilderness make this a film you absolutely should see on the big screen. Far less mighty is the characterization of Overgård. You learn next-to-nothing about him. There is no unnecessary dialogue in here. Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison’s script is trimmed for all signs of fat in the form of excess dialogue and ‘Hollywood-ized’ man-in-the-wilderness-elements. At no point, in the film, do we leave Mikkelsen’s side or see a flashback of his past. It is a refreshing restraint, honestly, but it isn’t entirely unlikely that the lack of Hollywood-ized story elements is due to the film’s small budget.

But this film would be nothing without its star — Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen gives a deeply sympathetic and harrowing performance, and his outstanding work is the backbone, the muscle, and the heart of Joe Penna’s Arctic. There are moments of reflection and hesitation, and a single embrace that only works because of Mikkelsen’s expressive mug. Mikkelsen delivers one of his best performances here — an astounding physical performance — and, at the end of the film, the desperation on his face almost moved me to tears.

Though it did, indeed, feel longer than it was, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. Penna successfully makes Overgård’s experience easy to feel. It’s even slightly uncomfortable how well Mikkelsen and Penna’s crew sell the character experience. Overgård undergoes incredible hardship, and, with one scene, in particular, the sound design effectively made me squirm in my theater chair. However, there were two or three things that did bother me.

For one, I wish Penna would’ve been gutsier with the film’s final shot (it’s the one moment in the film, where, I thought, it felt ‘too Hollywood’). I’m not entirely sold on Trapanese’s score, which, though beautiful in spurts, did have moments where it clumsily took away from the focus on a tortured and brilliant Mikkelsen performance.

Smáradóttir’s role is frustratingly infinitesimal. However, thankfully, Penna and Ryan Morrison’s script did not turn her into a love interest. Their connection is about a human bond, a necessary push for survival, and loneliness. Also, the film doesn’t do a lot to set itself aside from other films in the genre, apart from the fresh decision not to Hollywood-ize the film completely.

Though it is unlikely to be remembered for originality or its script, Joe Penna’s simple but confident and effective directorial feature debut, Arctic, is a riveting story of survival, and an outstanding actor’s vehicle for Mads Mikkelsen who gives a remarkable, tortured, and quietly moving performance in this lone survivor film that will draw comparisons to films like 127 Hours and The Revenant.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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