Mads Mikkelsen enters the “man vs. wilderness” genre with a near-wordless performance in Arctic, the debut feature from Brazilian YouTube phenom Joe Penna.
With plenty to admire in a neat 97-minute runtime, Arctic is another entry into the solo survival genre that sees our mostly silent and resourceful hero use all his willpower to stay alive following a plane crash in the remote arctic tundra. Unlike other survival tales, Arctic opens not with a literal bang of the plane crash a la Cast Away, but instead quietly introduces us to a man who has been stranded so long he already has his weary routine down to a science in a post-traumatic state of limbo.
There’s clues as to how long Overgard been marooned in the snow: the grime on his jacket, the length of his beard, the and the efficiency that he goes about his daily tasks from checking on his rudimentary ice fishing devices to hand-cranking an emergency signal beacon in the hopes of rescue.
When events take a dramatic turn – when you’re on your own in the Arctic, pretty much everything is a dramatic turn – Overgard is faced with the age-old survival decision: sit and wait for rescue or embark on what’s sure to be a treacherous journey?
Filmed in Iceland over 19 days, the minimalist story doesn’t need too many bells or whistles as we watch our hero struggle against the elements. Here, the Danish Mikkelsen’s raw acting skills are on full display without more than a few words of dialogue (something he mastered years earlier in Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody viking tale Valhalla Rising) as Overgard is stretched to his physical and emotional limits. It’s a tale we’ve seen before but Mikkelsen imbues it with something entirely new.
Arctic is far more understated and nuanced than the frenetic YouTube videos that made Penna famous, falling squarely into the linear “slow burn” category of storytelling. There are dark elements in the story here to be sure – in a Q&A, Mikkelsen himself told an audience he lobbied for a bleak ending – but it’s not all dire. Arctic gives us small moments of joy – the finding of a working lighter, reeling in a big fish – and more importantly, Overgard’s reason to keep going.
Arctic, which debuted at Cannes in 2018, makes its way to theatres on February 8.