Movie Review: Arctic.
Arctic is a visceral man-vs-nature survival drama pared down to the narrative bone.
Earlier this month, Mad Mikkelsen’s assassin flick Polar left us cold. This week, we head to the theaters to check out his latest drama, Arctic. I’m starting to see a chilly theme here…Dear lord, I hope Mads isn’t angling to play Mr. Freeze in the next Batman movie!
Arctic is a gripping survival story, told with minimal frills. A story without proper beginning or end, we are left to survive on the brute facts of one man fighting to subsist in the freezing cold. The intense focus on minimalism fits Mads Mikkelsen’s style like a frostbit hand in glove. The film does not reinvent the genre, but distills it down to its most primal and human elements.
A man (Mads Mikkelsen) moves across the frigid Arctic landscape, performing a grim ritual of survival. Clear the snow from a massive S.O.S. carved in the landscape. Check his fishing lines for food. Head to the wind-blasted hill above his shelter to hand-crank a distress beacon. Return home to shiver in the wrecked hulk of his crashed plane.
One day his solitude is mercifully broken by a pair of researchers responding to his beacon in a helicopter. Relief is short lived: a sudden squall downs the vehicle. With the pilot dead and the female passenger slowly dying of her wounds, the man decides to set off across the tundra in a desperate bid to save both their lives.
The man-vs-nature drama is a fairly rigid genre. There’s not a lot of wiggle room when it comes to a guy stuck out in the snow. As such, many films in the genre feel formulaic. That winds up being mostly true for Arctic, too. Just watching the trailer, you pick out the hits: falling through the ice, getting buried by a flash storm, a sudden injury that imperils the journey, getting menaced by the local fauna. Artic doesn’t really go out of its way to embroider or subvert any of the tropes of the survival narrative. It doubles down on them and invests them with a grim reality. Thanks to the excellent character work by Mads Mikkelsen, it works.
Alone at the End of the World.
The first 30 minutes of Arctic drop us straight into the plight of the protagonist with no explanation and very little dialogue. It’s a smart decision; when you see a guy eating raw fish he just caught with repurposed wire, shivering stolidly in a plane with no wings, you kind of get all of the narrative you need. Seeing a big spectacle crash or seeing our hero before he became the indomitable snowman would just be extraneous. This movie wants to shave the idea of man-vs-nature down to the brute facts of one man and the impersonal landscape trying to kill him.
To this effect the cinematography is intensely personal. For the hour and forty minutes we’re following this man around, I’d reckon half of that time is extreme closeups. The other half gorgeous establishing shots of Mads going about his business. Throughout we rely on mostly ambient sound and very minimal orchestration. There’s not even much of a bang when the helicopter crashes. Just the almost ASMR sound of crunching snow and whistling wind. It all comes together to be impersonally personal, much like our lead.
Mads Being Mads.
Mads Mikkelsen is a fascinating performer. His unconventional handsomeness, made of sharp, peculiar features blends with an onscreen persona of an unflappable and intensely cerebral person to create a unique character. As Hannibal Lecter or the vicious criminal antagonist of Charlie Countryman, he has the air of a disinterestedly sadistic clinician. He’ll tear you apart just to see how it would look, and then move on to reading the newspaper. Here, that level of disinterest and fixation make our protagonist’s isolation palpable. He simply endures much of his ordeal with a stoic grace. When his hopes are repeatedly dashed, he merely mutters “you’ve got to be kidding me” and then goes back to the grim business of living another five minutes.
Instead of being off-putting, it becomes humanizing. The emotion he betrays in his eyes and the lines of his mouth for a split second before putting his defensive shell back up do more to create a vivid interior life than an hour of dialogue. Director Joe Penna has a knack for salient detail and minimalism, and he gets the very best out of his star. Mikkelsen becomes his character, looking every bit as gaunt, haunted, but unbreakable as the protagonist.
Cracks in the Ice.
Arctic is not without flaws. My major gripe is that the supporting character of the helicopter survivor is essentially a prop. She exists to imbue our protagonist with purpose and virtue, but doesn’t do anything. Quite literally. She has one line of dialogue, and the sum total of her agency is squeezing Mads hand every six hours to prevent frostbite. We get trinkets hinting at her story: a photo of her, a man, and a child. The man was the pilot, so you expect some deep reaction. Instead, it shuts her down, and she spends the rest of the film being luggage.
I don’t think it would have taken away from the desperate isolation of Mads’ character had she been more interactive. Even if she just muttered in delirium, it would have given the film more material. We know they can’t understand each other’s language; seeing Mads react to her ravings as if it were conversation would really highlight his character’s primal need for companionship.
Stark, Dangerous Beauty.
Arctic is a strong addition to the survival genre. It creates a psychologically compelling situation deftly, without overplaying its premise or becoming self important. The cinematography, sound work, and acting all pull together. For his first feature film, Joe Penna shows he’s got a real talent for visual storytelling and a light touch. Arctic does what the best cinema does, pulling you deep into its world. Mads Mikkelsen acts as a magic mirror that allows you to vicariously experience this unimaginable drama. When I walked out of the theater to see an empty landscape covered in fresh snow, my first thought was I should go check my improvised fishing lines. That’s how immersive an experience Arctic was.