You’re not alone.
All we have to guess the duration of time Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) has been stranded alone in an icy wasteland nearby his crashed plane is the beard on his face. Even then we don’t know how long it was when he escaped the fuselage to pretend to have a starting point for anything that’s happening. The hash marks on his map might indicate days he’s gone out to spin his radio in hopes of hearing the ping of a green light making contact. The number of fish frozen in snow within his cooler is nothing more than evidence of his survival instincts and makeshift fishing lines. He’s contending with the elements, hunger, and a food-stealing polar bear while growing more uncertain about whether he will be saved.
Director Joe Penna‘s Arctic is over ninety minutes, though, so don’t worry that the entirety consists of Mikkelsen against a disorienting backdrop of white. A lot of it is that, but he gets a companion pretty early on in the form of a young woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) who’s injured in an attempted rescue. Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison do well to ensure they cannot understand each other so that communication isn’t able to work as a crutch for the visceral experience of what’s onscreen. Overgård tries to get her attention with English, but she’s in and out of consciousness throughout their soon-to-be arduous journey north towards a seasonal station promising respite. The words are often inconsequential as his actions propel us forward along an impossible mountainous route.
The film becomes a series of questions Overgård might not be able to answer. How will he keep his new companion alive? What resources will he have to waste to scare off a predatory bear and how much of what’s left afterwards can be left behind to lighten his load? He’s just one man pulling a plastic stretcher on skis through the snow with cleats on his shoes and a metal pole to gain leverage in the ice. So when he comes to a fork in the road, which direction will he choose? One way presents smooth sailing if he takes it by himself. The other guarantees a struggle that will take at least three-times longer, but it’s the only way he can get his patient out too.
Penna keeps us right there with these characters from start to finish without flashbacks or dream sequences to cut through the drama. We never see Overgård’s crash and we never find out what’s happened to the unnamed woman’s child. All we know is snow, pain, and futility—each scream of frustration Mikkelsen lets out being felt to our very core because he knows he could survive. By leaving her to die of exposure or her wounds depending on what comes first, he could use the map she brought and get himself to potential safety. His refusing that impulse isn’t because “then there wouldn’t be a movie,” though No, his staying to help her is a very specific character trait defining him as someone to aspire towards.
That’s the test isn’t it? When push comes to shove, will you look out for yourself or do whatever is in your power to save another? This is a basic human conundrum because you could theoretically justify both answers. Justification, however, says nothing about the emotional and psychological toll that decision takes. Survivors’ guilt isn’t something to joke about and the circumstances that get Smáradóttir’s character hurt would only exacerbate it if Overgård chose to simply keep walking without her. Maybe it helps that making it to the seasonal station doesn’t automatically secure salvation. He could get there and still end up freezing while thinking about what he had done. Wouldn’t dying beside someone no matter how little you know of them be a better alternative?
Only you can truly know. Unfortunately, like Overgård, you might not until face-to-face with the choice. And even then you may wind up changing your mind out of shame or perhaps fate will intervene as well. Anything can happen and nothing will go as planned. So we watch as Overgård does everything in his power to save them and in turn sit right alongside him as he laments his many failures. That’s all you can ask from a survival film such as this: honesty. You need to play the odds and never cut corners as far as what can feasibly be done and what cannot. A commanding screen presence like Mikkelsen definitely goes a long way towards finding success, but Arctic lives or dies by its script.
I won’t lie and say the result doesn’t have lulls or moments that seem repetitious on the surface. You can’t set a feature length film in a singularly uniform environment with two actors and avoid such inevitabilities. Just because Overgård constantly moves Smáradóttir before checking her wound and asking her to squeeze his hand doesn’t mean the plot isn’t advancing since the bandages, hands, and reactions say so much. We’re literally watching her fade away while he becomes more desperate and helpless each time. In the end there’s little you can do besides wake up the next day to take a breath. Each inhale supplies us hope and every morning the chance of this being our lucky day. It’s not therefore about life or death, but humanity’s perseverance.
[1-3] Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgård in ARCTIC, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Helen Sloan / Bleecker Street