Mads Mikkelson gives a powerful performance in this sparse survivalist thriller.
February 14, 2019
Whether stranding Sandra Bullock in space in Gravity, casting Robert Redford adrift in All Is Lost or pitting Liam Neeson against wolves in The Grey, survival thrillers rise and fall on the strength of their performances. You can now add Mads Mikkelsen to the list of actors testing their mettle against the elements — and add him to the ranks of stellar near-solo portrayals as well. His character, Overgård, is trapped in the Arctic Circle. Snow and rock stretch out as far as his weary eyes can see, the remnants of a crashed plane provide his only shelter, and greeting each morning relies on his wits and will. As a result, much of Arctic involves looking at his weathered, determined face, and it paints a compelling picture.
Details are hard to come by in Arctic, which thrusts viewers into the thick of Overgård's plight from its opening frames. He's first spied scraping away at the ground to create a giant SOS sign, then tending to his icy fishing holes, and then cranking the transmitter he hopes will attract the attention of any aircraft that happen to fly nearby. The specifics of his situation — why, when, how — aren't offered, and they aren't important. All that matters is his dogged fight to survive. Before long, however, he's not the only person trying to endure oppressively frosty climes. A helicopter appears like something out of Overgård's dreams, but then it swiftly crashes, leaving an injured and unconscious woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) in his care.
While the scenario might sound familiar, The Mountain Between Us this isn't. Arctic is concerned with survival and nothing more, with no rosy backstories or blossoming romances. Writer-director Joe Penna and his co-scribe Ryan Morrison understand the most crucial aspect of their chosen genre: that there's nothing more powerful than watching a tale of life and death play out in the actions and expressions of a desperate protagonist. Faced with challenge after challenge — finding food, abiding the cold, attending to injuries, contending with polar bears, staving off frostbite and more — Overgård becomes the ultimate everyman. The circumstances he's navigating might be nightmare fuel for most, but the mechanics of soldiering on when the world is sparse, conditions are harsh and a disaster could wipe you out are both potent and relatable on an existential level.
The key, unsurprisingly, is Mikkelsen. The Danish star has played a grimy drug dealer in crime franchise Pusher, a suave Bond villain in Casino Royale, a persecuted teacher in The Hunt and a cannibalistic sociopath in TV series Hannibal, amassing a hefty resume and becoming one of the finest actors working today. Monopolising the screen in Arctic, he's at his best as a man confronting his worst experience and persevering by any means necessary. His performance is one of loaded silence and telling physicality; of saying more by saying nothing. The exertion as Overgård battles the inhospitable conditions, the care as he treats a stranger's wellbeing like his own, the desolation as he thinks his quest will never end — Mikkelsen ensures that viewers always share the ride on his character's emotional rollercoaster.
Indeed, when there's a talent like Mikkelsen leading the charge, it's easy to overlook Arctic's generic moments. Much about the film fits the survivalist playbook, yet it never feels routine — just recognisable. And when the movie's star isn't stealing the show, Brazilian first-timer Penna and his cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson have the ideal substitution, with Iceland's frozen vistas telling their own intricate tale. As lensed with an awareness of the landscape's stark beauty as well as its evident dangers (and often viewed in wide and aerial shots that emphasise its enormous size), Arctic's vast expanse of ice and snow perfectly reflects Overgård's inner state.