If a stranger on the street came and told me that Mads Mikkelsen was once a hitman, I’d believe them. If they told me he was once a ballet dancer, I’d probably believe them. Drug lord? Absolutely. Rihanna’s bitch? For sure. In Joe Penna’s Arctic, his turn as a stranded pilot in the Arctic fighting for survival is another such wholly convincing role.
Mikkelsen’s pilot is continuously observed performing menial tasks – we meet him some time after the crash – establishing a time-consuming sense of order and management that offers a hint of backstory to his wealth of experience within the field. Each day he awakes from his still-standing plane cabin, fishes under the ice for arctic trout and undertakes the exhausting walk up to another snow-covered hill to try to find radio service; a task which he painstakingly crosses off on his map each day.
Penna conveys the pilot’s situation with a naturalistic sense of organized panic, these repetitive scenes and minimal dialogue bode well to show how tiresome and lonely the experience is – that survival is the only goal and thought process. The repetition feels exhausting and the harsh landscapes are unforgiving yet stunningly beautiful (and incredibly difficult) places to film. Mikkelsen thrusts himself completely into this physically demanding role, putting across so much with so little to say. But this minimalist style quickly grows tiresome, making the film itself feel exhausting, trundling along at a snail’s pace.
A promise of intrigue and danger eventually rears its grizzly white head as a hungry polar bear looms in the distance. The presence of the bear is implied as a dominant threat for much of the films run time, but never really comes to much of a climactic head, Penna’s desire to try to keep the film as un-sensationalised as possible leads to any kind of threat or bombastic action sequence quickly being pushed to the sidelines.
The pilot is also joined on his quest for survival by a severely wounded young woman he finds in another wreck. Again, what could have been another element of conflict within the film, a kind of push and pull to drive the narrative in an exciting direction, ends up as just another painstaking task for the pilot. The woman remains unconscious for much of her scenes (hello, easiest acting job ever!), dragged along in another slew of exhausting montages of Mikkelsen pulling her along the icy plains on a sled. The determination of his character, however, is remarkable. The presence of the woman at least pushes the pilot from his base camp as he desperately attempts to save her life, always trying to push forward.
We see a tenderness in Mikkelsen here that we have, unfortunately, rarely gotten to see from his previous work. He takes care to wrap up the woman for warmth in every new safe area they settle down in, always making sure to place her only possession – a family photograph – next to her in case she wakes up. A lot rides on this woman and this photograph, but with so little dialogue it’s hard to feel that gnawing need to get her to safety.
By taking the naturalistic approach, Penna manages to do what most first-time directors cannot: show restraint. His agonizing strip-back to the bare essentials of the survival genre is a draining spectacle of raw human determination, carried on the back of Mikkelsen’s compelling performance. But for regular watchers of this genre, an unadorned film such as Arctic might not possess the action required to break the ice.
Arctic is available on Digital, Blu-Ray and DVD on June 24th
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here