I return to the Mikkelsen well for ARCTIC, the survival horror film directed by Joe Penna. As Official Reviewer of Mads Mikkelsen films for Nightmarish Conjurings (trademark pending), I will say right off the bat that this is an excellent entry into the subgenre and a poignant and thrilling exploration of what it is to be human and the little steps that make up our lives.
One of the big differences between ARCTIC and many other survival horror films, like Survive and its remake Alive, is that ARCTIC does not start off where many others have. The crash that strands Mikkelsen’s character Overgård is never shown or even reminisced upon in flashback. The simple fact of the matter is that Overgård is there and must work every day to survive and perhaps find a way to be rescued. Much is usually made in this type of film of the horror of the crash and the despair of the passengers who lived, but Overgård is simply shown as a man who finds a reason every day to get up and continue with no guarantee that there is going to be a happy ending which I found not only refreshing; but an excellent comment on the human condition. Human beings often are concerned with rewards and achievements, but miss the fact that life is made up of one step after another that brings the goal into focus. Overgård’s dogged determination is his survival, a point that many miss in life. Every boring and seemingly useless task that he completes is what helps him continue and even thrive. The film makes the point that life is made up of survival and that to do life’s busy work is a great way to drive off despair. Life is not easy, life is uncertain, life is work.
Mikkelsen is again masterful in this role. The film is much like a silent movie, for the first segment of the film, he is completely alone and only occasionally grunts or says a word or two to himself or the fish he catches. After the arrival of the second survivor, he attempts to communicate with her, but she is severely wounded and depressed after the death of her fellow crew member and then falls deeper into unconsciousness as her wounds get worse. María Thelma Smáradóttir as the young woman is also commendable in a role that many actors would have literally slept through. Add to this the film’s language barrier between the two and you see how the two actors can only rely on their eyes to communicate their needs and fears. In the limited moments of communication between herself and Overgård, there is a tenuous trust and deep and growing emotional communication between the two actors that was touching to see. The eye work is fantastic and it is something that Mikkelsen excels at. Actors who can communicate emotionally without long-winded speeches are really hard to beat. Many humans avoid looking into one another’s eyes for fear of just that kind of emotional exposure.
The arrival of the young woman throws Overgård’s plan into disarray. He is worried about her condition which steadily grows worse after both of their lives are made easier by the addition of items salvaged from the downed helicopter she arrived in. He is guilty that the helo crashed trying to rescue him. He has to make a choice and does so with the help of a map. But life is much more slippery than any of us can account for and things continue to go awry. The foreshadowing of wild animals in the distance, the indifferent beauty of the arctic landscape, and the sheer force of will needed to continue on, even though you suspect that you are walking into death’s embrace. There’s a moment in this film that isn’t especially gory or violent, but it had me reacting physically with empathy for the character’s plight. Yes, I cried. For a moment or two, I was afraid that the ending might be much like the ending of John Sayles’ Limbo, which was completely justified but hated by audiences on its release. I will leave you to watch the film to find out if that is indeed what happens.
Joe Penna, the director, is a bit of a marvel himself for making a film so rich in meaning and so enthralling where so very little happens. He is a musician and former Youtuber, who had some of the most popular channels in his native Brazil – one of which was MysteryGuitarMan. Ryan Morrison, his frequent collaborator, wrote and edited the film which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Tómas Örn Tómasson did really good work as the cinematographer. Obviously, this is a beautiful place, but he made expanses of snow look beautiful and frightening at the same time. The film was shot in 19 days and Mikkelsen ranks it as one of the most difficult shoots he’s ever done. There is a scene where it looks like he has a bad snow burn and I believed it was real, even if it wasn’t.
ARCTIC is a survival horror movie with a surprisingly warm human heart and understanding of the human soul. It is gripping while not really having an excess of violence or action sequences to fall back on. It is both empathetic and pitiless. It is a gem that should not be missed.
ARCTIC arrives in select theaters February 1st, 2019.