Joe Penna’s Arctic opens with a man (Mads Mikkelsen) frantically digging through several feet of snow and down toward the ground below. A few minutes go by before we discover the reason behind his determination, when an overhead shot reveals “SOS” spelled out in massive letters next to a crashed plane. The man, whose name we learn is Overgård from the patch on his parka, is stranded somewhere in the Arctic, and based on the Roman numerals scratched on a notepad, he’s been there for at least a couple of months. The filmmakers don’t delve into the context of the crash, preferring instead to marvel at the meticulous daily rituals Overgård engages in to survive his predicament, such as traveling to a different spot on a crudely drawn map every day in order to send out electronic signals for help, and carefully storing and preparing the fish he catches with a complex, jerry-rigged apparatus.
There are no internal monologues here to convey the arduousness of the man’s ordeal, only the sound of the gusting wind, the crunching of snow beneath his feet, and the occasional grunt and frustrated utterance whenever a task becomes especially difficult for him to endure. As a tale of man versus nature, the film is about as spare and elemental as they come, akin to J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, only without the additional subtext on mortality that came along with the casting of Robert Redford. Mikkelsen’s unwavering demeanor has primarily served him well playing a number of notable villains over the years. But Arctic pushes the actor past that comfort zone in scenes that see Overgård reveal an underlying tenderness and vulnerability beneath his tightly controlled façade, especially after a badly wounded, unnamed woman (María Thelma Smáradóttir) arrives on the scene in the wake of a freak accident.
When the woman is introduced late in the first act, it appears as if Penna has cheated the audience, thrusting another character into the narrative to give Mikkelsen’s lone survivor someone to bounce dialogue off of or to lead him to disclose his personal history. But the young girl proves to be less a potential companion than a mostly unconscious burden whose inactive presence, and the additional efforts needed to protect her, begins to test Overgård’s moral and physical resolve. While he drags her along on a sled as they trek toward an area that, based on a detailed map the girl had on her, should provide a chance at finding help, Arctic’s proceedings are lent a certain emotional gravitas as Overgård develops a sense of camaraderie and deep compassion for his mostly silent companion. Overgård goes to great lengths to save the woman’s life, but the sheer brutality of the elements forces him to confront just how many times he can put his own life on line in order save a stranger.
Penna too often leans on a generic, often overbearing score to ratchet up the tension, but his approach to the material is otherwise austere and free of manufactured drama. His camera remains hyper-focused on Overgård’s movements, gestures, and intense interactions with his surrounding environment, capturing the extent of the physical stresses that come with surviving in such a harsh landscape. But even in the worst predicaments, Overgård conveys a sense of resolve that prevents the film from becoming some miserablist parable. Arctic’s stripped-down aesthetics and nuts-and-bolts approach to the survival film leads to a handful of redundant passages, but its stark realism lends Overgård’s tale of survival a raw immediacy that can only be achieved when most cinematic excesses have been eliminated.