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Here is a gripping and efficient addition to the rugged survivalist thriller genre, a realm where men are men and howling lamentations at the unforgiving sky are considered entirely acceptable. It’s directed by Joe Penna, a first-time film-maker from Brazil formerly known for his YouTube persona, MysteryGuitarMan. His debut feature owes a fair bit to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and the Robert Redford lost-at-sea drama All Is Lost, but it’s tidily put together and boasts a terrific, ruddy-cheeked performance from Mads Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen’s character is listed in the credits as Overgård, but that’s pretty much all we ever learn about him. We do know he is a pilot of some sort, though it’s clear when we first encounter him that Overgård won’t be doing any barrel-rolls any time soon – his plane has crashed, stranding him in a remote corner of the Arctic.
Overgård has made the best of the situation, building from his ordeal a quotidian routine. Each day he catches fish in the frigid waters beneath the ice, sends a distress call using a wind-up transmitter and carefully tends to the enormous SOS sign he had etched in the snow. There are a few wrinkles on the horizon – notably the polar bear wandering around in the distance – but as life-or-death situations go, it doesn’t seem too bad. Indeed you suspect that Overgård might sort of enjoy the discipline of it, delighting in small pleasures such as warming his hands over a paraffin stove and catching a giant trout.
But Overgård is shaken out of his groove by what should be his salvation: a search-and-rescue helicopter arrives to pick him up, and then promptly crash-lands during a similar snowstorm to the one you suspect downed Overgård’s aircraft. The pilot is dead, but there are signs of life in the co-pilot, a Russian woman. She is unconscious, with a nasty gash on her stomach, and the medical supplies Overgård finds in the chopper don’t look as if they’ll last long.
Something will have to give, so Overgård takes executive action, strapping his new companion to a sled and journeying north, where – if his map is correct – there should be an outpost. The shot of Mikkelsen and sled venturing into the vast, blank wilderness brought to mind the moment in Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the Edge of the World when a penguin, driven mad by unseen forces, abandons his feeding ground and marches towards certain oblivion.
This too looks like a decision destined for disaster, and Penna seems to revel in the cruelty he is able to inflict on the film’s lead character – and by extension his star. There’s a wickedly dark humour to some of the more Job-like moments of misery Overgård undergoes, with one particularly painful pratfall coming directly after he has spied the hopeful sight of a flower growing in the grit and snow.
Mikkelsen hurls himself into proceedings. It’s a performance of intense commitment, where every grunt and yowl feels agonisingly authentic. The same can’t really be said of Maria Smáradóttir, the Icelandic actor who spends much of the film as little more than a disembodied and largely comatose head in a sleeping bag. It’s hardly advancing the current cause for better roles for women, though perhaps preferable to the miraculous recovery and romantic engagement amid the glaciers that a lesser film would have gone for.
Instead, Arctic is preoccupied with the small details. The repercussions of each decision made by Overgård seem to have been considered from all angles, and this, together with the portentous score that looms throughout, means that the stakes seem grippingly high. The film is not perfect – it only really gets absorbing when its lead is forced out of his comfort zone – but this is an assured debut from Penna. It will be interesting to see what he does next.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Arctic review – Mads Mikkelsen lends sizzling machismo to icy survival tale | Cannes 2018