Film

Mads Mikkelsen's Inimitable Talent for Silent Acting Compels the Survival Story in 'Arctic'

Poster excerpt of Arctic (2019) (IMDB)

Joe Penna's debut, survival film Arctic, is yet another showcase for the formidable Mads Mikkelsen, who continues to carve out a space in modern moviemaking that few other actors could occupy.

Arctic
Joe Penna

Bleecker Street

1 Feb 2019 (US)

Other

If there's an actor working today who's able to command the immediate emotional presence of silent cinema, it's probably the striking Dane, Mads Mikkelsen. With his beautiful facial bone structure and the rigid composure of a dancer or gymnast (he was, in fact, both before his acting career took off), Mikkelsen has made an impressively versatile and long-lasting career out of saying very little. Although American audiences likely know him mostly from the grim and gorgeous NBC TV series, Hannibal, his turns in Danish films like Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher (1996) and Valhalla Rising (ibid, 2000, enjoy Brice Ezell's interview with Winding, here), were the first to give international audiences a taste of his uniquely severe emotionality.

It's fitting, then, that Mikkelsen would star in a film like Joe Penna's Arctic. Within the ever-increasing survivalist film genre, leading actors typically must be able to pull off both a brutish physicality and a stoic personality that nevertheless betrays some sort of convincing internal turmoil. In Valhalla Rising, as the imprisoned thrall One-Eye, Mikkelsen pulled this off without uttering a single word. Arctic demands slightly more verbosity, and yet it's the actor's inimitable talent for silent acting that carries the narrative into deeper, more emotionally resonant territory.

The film is Penna's directorial debut, but the Brazilian has been working with video for more than a decade. In Brazil, he's known for the YouTube channel, MysteryGuitarMan, which currently has more than 2.7 million subscribers. A separate channel, where Penna uploads behind-the-scenes and making-of compilations, has over 300,000. His experience shows in Arctic, which was shot on location in Iceland over a period of 19 days. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan, 11 May 2018), Mikkelsen called it the most difficult shoot of his career.

The narrative in Arctic is straightforward. Mikkelsen plays a man named Overgard, who spends his days surviving in the arctic by sticking to a series of rituals and relying on various contraptions for food, shelter and transportation. We only see glimpses of this kind of life's brutalities at first; Overgard is purple in the feet and missing a few toes, but the relative safety of his camp mostly shields him from immediate danger. One day, a helicopter flies near the camp, and he flags it down by setting off a flare. The helicopter attempts to land, but in doing so it gets caught up in the wind and crashes, killing its pilot. A passenger, a severely injured young woman (María Thelma Smáradóttir), is left in the rubble, and Overgard rushes to save her, taking responsibility for her life in addition to his own. He never once questions the ethical or moral reasons behind this decision, instead operating on the fumes of a passionate practicality. With an injured second body under his watch, Overgard realizes that it's time to leave the safety of his camp for help.

(IMDB)

Penna and cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson shoot these scenes in typical realist fashion, making room for both wide shots of the arctic expanse and for close-ups of Mikkelsen's weather-beaten face. There's natural beauty to the chaos, but there's no effort made to glamorize the wilderness. If Arctic is in any way romantic, it is so only about the nature of the human spirit. It's almost as if, when the young woman joins his camp, Overgard is given a reason to attempt true salvation. It plays out much like parenthood, with the instinctual, frenzied desire to care for the vulnerable overriding more selfish needs. Overgard's actions, then, and his potent, unwavering brand of solidarity, carry the weight of the film's script, which is spare.

But this sort of minimalism, while satisfying on a certain level, is a hindrance in terms of establishing any sort of larger meaning around basic plot points. The circumstances that led to this estrangement are unclear. There are no flashbacks, only photos — Overgard's ID, and the woman's photo of her husband (who we can assume is the man killed in the helicopter crash) and baby. Overgard places this photo always within the woman's eyesight so as to provide some sort of motivation, and yet its resonance is thin, unable to be fully felt by audiences kept blind to any sort of backstory. It's an effective tactic in some respects, highlighting the bleak anonymity of being trapped in the middle of a harsh landscape, and yet in this case it mostly serves as a roadblock to a more relatable story that might have been easier to invest in.

Instead, Arctic's biggest strengths are in its arguments as a moral fable. While we're left questioning just who these characters are, there's very little inner turmoil to Overgard's new journey. If anything, his indomitable spirit arises out of his newfound responsibility for the woman, who gives him a reason to put up a good fight. This is an objectively optimistic view of humanity, and one which many other directors would likely be too cynical to take. There's something admirable about this, and it poses an interesting question moving forward in Penna's career: Are these grand moral quandaries of specific interest to the director, or are they just circumstantial to his work here? Throughout the film there's also the obvious question of how it will end. If Overgard and the woman are saved, Arctic's statement is overall a rather positive one. If they die, the takeaway is murkier but no less interesting.

Arctic isn't a groundbreaking tale of survival, and at times it's far too safe to break out in a world of daring, breathtaking cinema, but it's a well-executed film that establishes Penna's evolution from YouTuber to film artist. It's also yet another showcase for the formidable Mikkelsen, who continues to carve out a space in modern moviemaking that few other actors could occupy. The film won't win any awards, but it's rewarding in the same manner as a well-composed photograph. It's satisfying enough in its simplicity.

6
Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of the Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he could shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means the brightest star in the power-pop universe has suddenly gone dim.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of the Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he could shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means the brightest star in the power-pop universe has suddenly gone dim.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.