Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Arctic": review

Released to very little fanfare, 2018's "Arctic" (2019 US release), directed by Joe Penna and starring Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, tells the very simple, stripped-down story of a pilot named Overgård (Mikkelsen) who has crashed somewhere in the Arctic, miles away from the nearest outpost or refuge.

The story begins with the crash having happened some time ago; Overgård has been stranded long enough to have lost a toe or two to frostbite; he has been counting the days since his stranding by scratching tally marks on a map, and he has formed a daily routine—punctuated by his beeping watch—that involves ice fishing, the maintenance of a large "SOS" sign he's dug out of the ground, and the broadcasting of an SOS signal from a nearby hilltop through the use of a hand-cranked generator and antenna. One day, Overgård discovers that his supply of frozen fish has been raided by a polar bear, which puts him on his guard.

A few days after that, someone responds to his SOS: a helicopter appears in the middle of a violent windstorm, and for a moment, rescue seems imminent, but then the helicopter crashes. Initially stunned, Overgård rushes to the downed chopper and discovers the male pilot is dead. A female copilot or passenger (Smáradóttir) is still alive, however, and Overgård unstraps her from her seat and extracts her from the wreck. Taking some items from the 'copter, Overgård places the woman and the items on a sled and heads back to his downed plane, which has served as his shelter since his own crash.

The woman turns out to have suffered not only a serious concussion from the crash, but a grievous abdominal laceration. Overgård does what he can to close, disinfect, and cover the wound, but he knows that, unless rescue is forthcoming, the woman is on borrowed time. Looking through some of the woman's possessions, Overgård realizes that the dead pilot is the woman's husband. Sure enough, the woman's condition worsens, and Overgård looks at his map again to see whether a trek to the nearest outpost is feasible. He decides it is, and he places the woman and some crucial supplies onto his sled, then heads out into the frozen wilderness with only his failing strength and his navigational acumen to help him.

"Arctic" is a simple story, but a brutal watch, and this is largely thanks to Mads Mikkelsen's incredible performance. The movie has very little dialogue; the woman is unconscious most of the time, and Overgård, when he talks, mostly mumbles to himself in English and Danish. Mikkelsen is on record as saying that this was the most difficult performance of his career, and I believe him. The film, sere and austere, was shot mostly in Iceland—just outside the Arctic Circle—and there's simply no way that the snow and wind I was seeing on screen were fake. There may have been some CGI work for the helicopter-crash scene (as well as for one or two other scenes), but if that was CGI and not a practical effect, it was well executed.

After watching the movie, I marveled at how such a simple story, a variation on the "arduous journey home" archetype, could contain so many twists and turns. An action movie's stock in trade is something called a reversal, e.g., when the hero victoriously grabs the treasure from the villain, runs out of the temple, and stumbles into the villain's two hundred waiting henchmen (basically, the first ten minutes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"). But even though "Arctic" is—forgive the awful pun—glacially paced, the story nevertheless contains several reversals that keep the ending in doubt. Now, while I often include spoilers in my reviews, I'll say here that "Arctic" is one movie that I absolutely cannot spoil for you. The reason is simple: in a movie with two characters, almost no dialogue, and an extremely harsh environment, the viewer goes in already knowing that only a limited number of outcomes are possible. So you already know what the possibility-tree of the story's ending must be: the two characters live, or they die—or only one of them survives. The movie is so well crafted that you don't find out the answer to that question until the final minute.

Unfortunately, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, who plays the injured woman, has very little to do except lie there, breathe raggedly, murmur occasionally, look wan, and ignore attempts by Overgård to slip food and water between her lips. Smáradóttir can barely be said to star in her own movie, and yet so much of the movie's plot depends on her imperiled existence. I suppose I could give the actress kudos for convincingly playing an injured, dying woman, but this would be like praising Kevin Costner for his performance as the dead body in "The Big Chill."

I should also note the movie's cinematography and sound design. Iceland does a fine job of portraying an unnamed region of the Arctic, and the cameras capture the bone-white vistas with graceful artistry. The soundscape of blustering wind, crumbling rock, and crunching snow makes the experience of Overgård's tribulation all the more real and intimate. The terrain itself is at times soothingly flat and forbiddingly craggy, reflecting the capricious nature of Mother Nature, a heedless goddess of both mercy and punishment.

If I had one quibble with the story, it was a technical one: there are several scenes in which Overgård walks around out in the open without any sort of headgear or gloves. It was my understanding—which may be wrong—that you'd freeze in an instant if you exposed yourself even for a moment to Arctic conditions. Then again, I've seen video of Bear Grylls crossing a gelid Icelandic river in below-zero temperatures and high winds, so what do I know?

That quibble aside, I found "Arctic" to be a magnificent experience. I don't watch many films in the "survival" genre; I've heard good things about Robert Redford's "All Is Lost," but I haven't had the chance to see it yet. The last survival film I saw was probably either Tom Hanks's "Cast Away" or Sandra Bullock's "Gravity." Survival anywhere on our planet can be a dicey issue if you're away from civilization; only the hardiest and the cleverest can manage it, and "Arctic" is an excellent portrayal of one resourceful, determined man who gives his all in an attempt to survive the impossible. For Mads Mikkelsen—a versatile actor with a background in dance, gymnastics, and comedy—this may be his most intense, most heartfelt performance yet. He utterly carries the movie. Highly recommended.

CORRECTION: I had written that Overgård muttered to himself in Dutch. An anonymous commenter corrected me and noted the language was Danish. The language in the post has been corrected, but the comment has been deleted because it was anonymous. Commenters: please, please read the comments policy, which sits right above the comment window.


Charles said...

I heard about this film a while ago and have really wanted to see it. Though I am kind of a sucker for "survival" films (I loved "All Is Lost," and would definitely recommend it).

About your quibble, I'm pretty confident that you would not freeze in an instant if exposed to Arctic conditions. Prolonged exposure would of course be bad, and lead to things like frostbite, but the time variable of the equation is just as important as the temperature variable. How wet you are also plays an important role--if you took a swim in icy water and then exposed yourself to Arctic winds, you would have minutes before your body started to shut down.

I've never been above the Arctic circle, but I have experienced very cold conditions, and I can say that it is possible to walk around in those conditions without headgear or gloves (in fact, the latter is sometimes necessary if you need to use your fingers for fine work) for short periods of time, especially if you are being reasonably active. I can also say, from having walked barefoot through a half-frozen Mongolian stream, that cold water is far more painful and dangerous than cold air.

(Also, if you look up historical photos of the Scott and Amundsen expeditions to the North Pole, by the way, you'll find photos of guys standing around with no headgear.)

Kevin Kim said...

Good points. I hope you see "Arctic." It's a memorable experience.