It’s eyeball-freezing cold up there in the Arctic. You can feel it in this movie’s bones. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen does wonders with the role of Overgård, the downed pilot of a small cargo plane who’s awaiting a rescue that may never come. Overgård doesn’t bang on about his troubles, like Tom Hanks laying on exposition to Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away. He just gets the job done, carving a giant SOS in the snow and poking holes in the ice to catch fish that he carries back to the fuselage where he filets and serves the dish (it’s arctic trout) like a master sushi chef. Arctic, a potent feature-directing debut for Joe Penna, is compellingly practical about showing what it takes to stay alive in the frozen wilderness. (Iceland filled in for the North Pole as a location.) There’s a commendable lack of Hollywood bullshit in how the pilot takes on the challenge of passing Mother Nature’s grueling endurance test. And for a while Arctic recalls the man-alone intensity of J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, where a late-career-best Robert Redford maneuvered his sailboat through a raging sea.
But Overgård isn’t alone for long. To (over)complicate the plot, Penna — who wrote the script with his editor Ryan Morrison — sends in a rescue chopper which quickly crashes in the howling winds. One of the two pilots survives (Icelandic actress Maria Thelma Smáradôttir), but she is barely conscious. Overgård stitches up the slashing wound in her abdomen, but he knows she won’t make it unless he can get her to the mountains. So, packing her up on a sled made from the plane’s door, he begins a trek toward what seems likes an increasingly hallucinatory deliverance.
The reputation of Penna — a Brazilian writer and director who made his name as MysteryGuitarMan, a sensation on YouTube who accompanied himself on whistle and soda bottles and then moved on to commercials and music videos (Avicii’s “You Make Me”) — leads you to expect unchecked flamboyance. Not a bit. Arctic is stripped down in its effects and unflashy editing, though a marauding polar bear does make a brief but effective appearance. With the invaluable help of cinematographer Tomas Orn Tomasson and composer Joseph Trapanese, Penna builds suspense and nerve-frying tension using the basic tools of composition and camera placement.
What takes Arctic to the next level is Mikkelsen’s stirringly expressive face. Known for playing villains — the dead-eyed 007 nemesis Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and the title killer in the TV series Hannibal (2013-2015) — Mikkelsen invests Overgård with a bracing humanity that you root for every step of the way. With no backstory or dialogue to establish who Overgård is or what motivates him beyond survival, Mikkelsen delivers a virtuoso performance that holds your attention, even when the film threatens to succumb to the grinding repetition of Overgård’s day-to-day existence. Arctic may be too austere and minimalist for the anything-for-a-jolt crowd, but what makes it raw also makes it riveting.