Can a movie be both enjoyable and excruciating? Depends if you’re a glutton for punishment, which I’m usually not. But seeing what Mads Mikkelsen goes through in Joe Penna’s Arctic made me feel less prone to complain about the polar vortex. Mikkelsen plays a man named Overgård whose plane has gone down in the middle of the frozen wilderness. When we meet him, he has been living in that plane (still intact) for weeks if not months. A couple of toes are half-gone, but he seems to have had time to adjust. Did people go down with him? If so, they didn’t make it.
The film begins with a black screen and sound: the crunching of boots on snow, some pounding, and some chiseling. Then come the images: boots crunching on snow, some pounding, and some chiseling. Overgård has been there a long time, and somehow we know we will be, too. He has made holes in the ice, and every time a bucket over them rattles, he pulls up a fish and has sashimi. It looked good to me, but his expression suggests he’s sick of sashimi. This kind of storytelling is known as procedural, i.e., we do not go from A to D to H but have to experience B, C, E, F, and G, here with grunting and the ear-sawing whistling of the Arctic wind. This would normally be intolerable, but (a) the settings are stunning and the Arctic might not be around too long if the temperatures get much higher, and (b) it’s Mads. If bone structure signals character, his face runneth over. I could watch him for hours.
Arctic eventually gets another character, a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) who looms large while remaining supine. She’s wounded in the gut, racked by fever from the infection, and generally non compos mentis. But her fever jogs Mads from his stupor and sends him on a probably doomed journey, tugging her well-swaddled form on a sled behind him.
We watch him trudge and grunt and fall and trudge and examine his blue fingers and heeeave and watch the sled slide downhill and trudge and heeeave again — and just when we think it can’t get any more horrible, something happens and we realize that until then he’d had it relatively easy. The movie really takes your mind off your own troubles. I liked it a lot.
*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!