After the dark backgrounded opening titles, “Arctic” opens on an exceptionally bright scene. People may blink and turn away as their eyes adjust to this new reality. It is the only time during the entire affair that they will turn away. Directed by Joe Penna and with a script from Penna and Ryan Morrison, this tale of one man’s attempt to survive in the arctic wilderness is a nail-biting wonder.
Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgård, a man whose plane has clearly crashed sometime back and who has managed to come up with a routine by which he can survive in this frozen wilderness. This routine involves set times to maintain his “SOS” sign in the snow, times for fishing, times for checking for radio signals. He is a man ruled by the beeping of his wristwatch, a watch which informs him every time he needs to change tasks.
It is simply stunning to watch Overgård proceed through his daily life, to watch his routine and how he has not allowed the drudgery of it to defeat him. In fact, he seems to draw physical, but perhaps not mental, strength from it. He can simply turn off his brain and continue performing the tasks which allow him to live.
Mikkelsen’s portrayal here is amazing. In a movie that could easily grow boring or stale, Mikkelsen, despite often only having his face visible (it’s cold in the arctic), holds the viewer’s gaze. In fact, he holds more than the viewer’s gaze, he captures the viewer’s mind. Watching him go through his day, seeing how he has already worked out little things (like bringing a case over to the bench he sleeps on so that his arm can rest on the case as the bench itself isn’t wide enough) is completely gripping.
When the movie does change—as it must—and Overgård finds himself caring for a sick helicopter co-pilot who cannot take care of herself (played by Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) and forced to make choices not just for himself but for someone else as well, it is no less wonderful. No longer can Overgård listen to the beeping of his watch and allow it to rule him. No longer can he simply proceed about his day in the way he has been. He has to actively consider his choices – the co-pilot, unlike Overgård himself, will not survive in the wreckage of his plane.
Despite having someone to care for, Overgård is still all alone. The co-pilot can do little more than eat small bits of food and drink water. She is largely unconscious and therefore a burden to Overgård, but she is also a catalyst. She turns his brain back on.
One of the big questions “Arctic” asks is whether Overgård his better off alone or with someone else. Having another human with him forces him to act, to live and not just subsist, but it also greatly increases the danger he faces. Whether it elevates the chances of his survival is unclear, but it is no longer just about him.
Penna and company do not answer the question, but rather make it clear that there is no easy yes or no, no easy right or wrong. Certainly the woman is Overgård’s responsibility, but the best way to care for her is undoubtedly up for debate.
This is a harrowing, wonderful, horrible, terrifying movie and over the course of its 98 minutes, it is more than engrossing. It is a triumph of filmmaking and of acting. It asks questions about what it is to be human and what responsibilities we have towards our fellow humans versus those we have to ourselves. By taking place in the arctic, in this most primal of settings, it boils those questions down to their essential, core, bits and then, beautifully, it does not offer any easy answer.
Finally, Mikkelsen’s performance, even though he does not speak often, is superb. Sadly, due to the way awards season works it will largely be ignored by the time people begin discussing the 2020 Oscars, but that is a shame. It is a feat one will remember for years to come.
photo credit: Bleecker Street