Think you’ve had a bad day? It couldn’t be much worse than what Overgård, the downed pilot at the center of first-time feature filmmaker Joe Penna’s fine adventure drama “Arctic,” is going through.
This resourceful Dane, superbly played with affecting warmth and brute tenacity by Mads Mikkelsen (“The Hunt,” TV’s “Hannibal”), has been stranded solo in the barren, frozen tundra following the apparent crash of his small plane. He’s subsisting on the most minimal of supplies as he eludes frostbite, starvation and the specter of a lonely, painful death — all while hoping for discovery and rescue. Think of it as a sub-zero version of “All Is Lost,” the 2013 Robert Redford marooned-at-sea saga.
It’s uncertain exactly how long Overgård has been there (he marks off the days on a paper stashed in his parka pocket), but clearly long enough to establish a daily routine: catch trout in jury-rigged ice-fishing holes, eat said trout sashimi-style (and freeze the rest), vainly attempt human contact via a battered old communication device, set watch alarm to track the hours, trek across the driven snow and back, bundle up for sleep in broken plane — and repeat.
Oh, and there’s the sporadic raging polar bear to avoid. (Director Penna shot footage using a live, trained bear and inserted it into existing scenes with Mikkelsen. A set-piece involving the animal, a cave and an emergency flare is especially terrifying.)
We know little about our hero — and little more as the film progresses — which is a purposeful tack by Penna and his co-writer, Ryan Morrison (who also edited). And somehow, despite that minimalistic approach, we are emotionally swept up in Overgård’s desperate fight to stay alive.
Whether that’s because of Penna’s mostly quiet but persistent and enveloping filmmaking style (quite different from the quirky-flashy YouTube videos that first brought him fame), Mikkelsen’s gripping performance or our instant personalization of the dire circumstances (what would we do?), there’s something deeply primal and masterful at work here.
Overgård’s situation becomes even more complicated and urgent when a helicopter runs afoul of the area’s brutal elements and crashes nearby, killing its pilot and gravely injuring its passenger, the pilot’s wife (Maria Thelma Smáradôttir). The film then shifts into a double tale of survival as Overgård poignantly struggles to nurse and protect the barely-conscious stranger while he continues to attempt a course out of his — now their — predicament.
The tender, steadfast way that Overgård takes care of this ailing woman, at times risking life and limb to do so, speaks volumes about who he is as much, if not more, than traditional biographical info might. He now has added purpose, one that literally dropped from the sky, and it gives the film’s second act a well-conceived new energy and dimension.
Overgård’s chipper words of encouragement for the woman, despite her grim condition and general lack of responsiveness (she speaks only one word the entire film: “pilot”), are particularly endearing and revealing: He’s not only a good and selfless man but an optimist. How else could he keep going? (Despite its scant dialogue, this is a deceptively skillful screenplay.)
The movie concludes with a pretty harrowing third act. And because Penna and Morrison never take the easy or predictable road anywhere here, we’re treated to a closing image that’s by turns chilling and thrilling, heart-wrenching and heart-lifting.
Stirring cinematography by Tómas Örn Tómasson, who captures the film’s stark Icelandic location with sweep and dazzle, plus an evocatively pensive, strings-heavy score by Joseph Trapanese, rounds out this enervating and exhilarating film.
In English and Danish with English subtitles
Rated: PG-13, for language and some bloody images
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 1, ArcLight Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles