II would like to see Mads Mikkelsen sit in silence for an hour and a half. Whether he’s playing a teary-eyed Bond villain, an alcoholic teacher, or the guy who designed the Death Star, the Danish actor infuses all his performances with a variety of thoughtful intensity that often exceeds the need for any form of dialogue. That’s exactly why he’s the perfect cast for Arctic, a chilling survival drama in which his lonely protagonist has to deal with a barely conscious helicopter co-pilot and a very angry polar bear in addition to himself.
Directed by Joe Penna, a former YouTuber making his feature film debut, Arctic first screened in Cannes in 2018 but later slipped under the radar thanks to a limited theatrical release. However, those looking for it will be treated to Mikkelsen’s best performance yet. He’s excellent in The Hunt and Another Round, but here’s a role that allows him to reach new emotional depths, expressing loneliness, fear, hope and despair with the now subtle facial movements – and then effortlessly upping the ante when struggling to survive takes a more extreme turn. In fact, he’s so natural and compelling that you’d think he was actually stranded in this frozen hell.
All we know about his character is that his name is Overgård and that he is a pilot. However, when we meet him early in the film, it’s immediately clear that he won’t be flying much as his plane crashed in a remote part of the Arctic. We don’t know how long he’s been there, but long enough to turn what’s left of his plane into a cozy little shelter.
There is something strangely therapeutic about Overgård’s isolated existence. In his solitude, he’s established a regular routine, catching fish from the waterholes he’s dug in the ice, broadcasting distress signals via a handheld transmitter, and maintaining the massive SOS signal he’s carved in the snow. Were it not for the ever-present threat of frostbite and death, some travel agents would probably tout this as an idyllic getaway.
In one of my favorite scenes, Overgård plucks a giant arctic trout from his ice hole and immediately cooks it with some salvaged instant noodles. It’s the tastiest, warmest meal he’s had in ages, and to see Mikkelsen’s sheer disbelief in his deliciousness is a magical sight.
Like a fine fish stew, however, the plot soon thickens when a helicopter – which was supposed to be his ticket off the tundra – crashes right in front of him. The pilot is dead, but the co-pilot (played by Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) is just about to cling to life, albeit unconscious with a huge gash in her abdomen. With barely enough medical supplies to keep them alive, Overgård makes the executive decision to strap his newfound companion onto a sled and trek to a distant northern outpost, knowing that the treacherous journey will now likely mean the same to them like Jack Nicholson did at the end of The Shining.
It’s an unrelenting mission reminiscent of the kind of suffering experienced in 127 Hours and The Revenant. There’s even a moment that feels directly inspired by the former, as a gruesome twist of fate just seconds after Overgård catches a glimpse of hope. As for the latter comparison, Mikkelsen isn’t sleeping in the carcass of a frozen horse, but he is facing a real, real polar bear. No CGI or hands-on effects required. In my estimation, that makes him infinitely tougher than Leonardo DiCaprio.
It’s amazing considering Arctic is Penna’s first feature-length film. He’s so sure of every decision he makes, and the twists and turns are so perfectly timed, you just can’t afford to take your eyes off the screen. Though a Moloch performance practically does all the heavy lifting (sometimes literally), this is still an incredibly authentic and poignant exploration of human survival that translates around the world thanks to its refreshing lack of dialogue. If someone told you this was the work of an award-winning director, you would probably believe them.