Six years ago, writer/director J.C. Chandor placed an elderly sailor played by Robert Redford in the middle of the sea on a yacht steadily taking on water in the tense and nearly wordless All Is Lost. As a tale of a man trying to survive against all odds it was irresistible. Arctic, from director Joe Penna and his co-writer Ryan Morrison, is another such indelible story with similar notes to Chandor’s story but taking place in a remote, frozen wilderness after a plane crash. Mads Mikkelsen rivets in this suspenseful drama as a resourceful man who refuses to surrender to the apparent hopelessness of his situation.
The film opens sometime after the crash. Who Mikkelsen is, what his role was on the plane, and how many people died in the disaster are questions Penna and Morrison never attempt to answer. Instead, we are introduced to this sole survivor stomping through the snow to write “SOS” in large enough letters to be seen by passing aircraft and checking fishing lines sunk into holes cut into the ice, the catch his only source of food. How long he’s been stranded is open to question, but when he strips off his socks at night before getting into his sleeping bag, he reveals feet ruined by frostbite.
Circumstances eventually force him out of the relative safety of the plane fuselage and into the wilderness in search of a settlement where he will find rescue. Blowing snow, subzero temperatures, a questionable map, a hungry polar bear, and a blanketed topography that hides unseen dangers might end the man’s life at any moment. Still, he perseveres. Rarely has the adage, “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” been better illustrated.
São Paulo, Brazil, native Penna makes his feature debut in this icy climate, shooting on a forbidding volcanic plateau in Iceland a world away from the sunny, subtropical temperatures of his homeland. Stunning cinematography by Tómas Örn Tómasson depicts an endless, snow-draped landscape of lethal beauty. That this was a shoot with a high degree of difficulty is evident in every frame, a situation which only underlines the dire straits Mikkelsen’s character faces. That thin line between life and death that accompanies us all every day of our existence is frayed, stretched, and nearly obliterated, but the man soldiers on.
With little dialogue and no back story to speak of, Mikkelsen nevertheless creates a character we come to care about, his actions pointing to someone whose life we would like to see saved even as the odds against just that continue to grow. This is one of the Danish actor’s great performances. Penna and Morrison set the stage in writing a tale of nonstop suspense, but it is Mikkelsen who transforms an ice-bound thriller into something bigger, a saga of a human being reaching beyond his limits through his sheer will to live. —Pam Grady