Mikkelsen carries the torch in ‘Arctic’

“Arctic” – Mads Mikkelsen’s character kneels on a narrow path of black rock and chips away at ice and snow with a pick and a serrated piece of sheet metal.  For anyone who has ever shoveled a driveway when the temperature hovers around zero, the opening scene of “Arctic” is a stressful reminder of Old Man Winter and his associated, compulsory chores.

The difference between Overgard (Mikkelsen) and John Q. Public scrapping coagulated powder in the frozen suburbs of Minneapolis, Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, Boston, and Spokane is the latter poor soul can – at least – catch reprieve inside a heated home stocked with hot chocolate.  Overgard, however, finds no such balmy comfort, but actually, a crashed carcass of an aircraft does serve as an indispensable refuge.

He is the lone survivor of a plane crash and is now stranded in a freezing anti-wonderland with little hope of rescue, as the unforgiving elements bear down on his mortal self.

“By far, the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  The conditions were overwhelming,” Mikkelsen said in a recent interview.

Overgard sports chapped lips and dry, pink cheeks that are burned from the frigid air, and when roaming outside the plane during daylight hours, he encases himself in a red down jacket, a gray hat and – what looks like – snowmobile pants as his only protection from the cold.  The nearby buttes do not exactly deflect the elements or provide shelter, and as he fishes in icy water, shovels into crusty ice (for a reason that will not be revealed in this review) and hand cranks a small transmitter in the hopes that someone will hear a faint ping, we can feel the cold seeping into our bones while sitting in comfortable theatre seats.

Like “127 Hours” (2010) and “Cast Away” (2000), the harsh environment forces our solitary hero into resourceful ingenuity, but unlike those films, “Arctic” does not flashback to leisurely moments or capture stretches of screen time in urban civilization.  Here, the movie – which was filmed in Iceland – is always set on location, and it’s up to Mikkelsen to carry the torch throughout the picture.

Whether he plays a Bond villain, an 18th century white knight or an elementary school teacher falsely accused of a heinous act, Mikkelsen always seems to deliver a sturdy, charismatic performance with his suave and articulate Northern European flair.  He commands the screen throughout the 97-minute picture in near-total isolation, and one Phoenix Film Society member mentioned just after a Scottsdale screening on Jan. 30, “Even though Mikkelsen speaks very few words, he communicates so much in silence during the entire movie.”

This is especially true during the last 60 minutes, as a very specific moral choice repeatedly confronts Overgard.  Meanwhile, the screenplay places nature’s obstacles in front of him that challenge his altruistic compass, as the director successfully performs a high wire act by introducing imposing theatrical impediments while not manipulating the audience.

Hence, Penna – who is directing his first feature film – displays massive resourcefulness and imagination in the most punitive of settings, and when asked why he chose such a difficult shoot, he said, “To tell a story of resilience, it had to be in the Artic.”

Overgard and Mikkelsen naturally fit with the surroundings.  Our fragile selves might not, but bring a down jacket, a hat, snowmobile pants, and a scarf too…and be awed.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Bleecker Street; Trailer credits: Movieclips Trailers

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