Few films have ever kept it simpler -- in terms of plot and character -- than "Arctic," a calling card from Brazilian YouTube sensation and first-time feature filmmaker Joe Penna. Granted, the 19-day shoot in Iceland probably wasn't very simple, but this showcase for Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen features almost no dialogue in its single-minded focus on a trek toward survival.
Best known as a character actor, Mikkelsen may not quite be a household name, but he has a familiar face. Moviegoers will remember him as Bond baddie Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale," for substantial roles in "Doctor Strange" and "Rogue One," or for playing Dr. Lecter on the TV series "Hannibal." American audiences are more used to seeing Mikkelsen play second fiddle, but "Arctic" -- an American-Icelandic co-production -- puts the quietly powerful actor front and center as a man already stranded in the titular region when the film begins.
Mikkelsen's Overgard proves enormously resourceful at sustaining himself in the bitter cold, taking shelter in his downed plane and keeping just ahead of starvation by fishing and rationing. Matters take a yet more alarming turn after a failed rescue mission leaves Overgard in the company of an unconscious young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir). Miles from an outpost, Overgard assesses his limited resources, calculates his limited time and decides to trek toward rescue instead of waiting around for more disaster. To do so, he must load the young woman on a makeshift sled and haul her, no small task.
And that's it. "Arctic" is defiantly minimalistic. The screenplay by Penna and Ryan Morrison doesn't go the way of the James Franco survival pic "127 Hours" and offer character-building visions or flashbacks, nor does it allow the meditative voice-over of the Robert Redford survival pic "All is Lost." So there's a kind of rigor in "Arctic" that forces one to be there now with Overgard, but there's also a total lack of context for the characters -- context that might heighten our identification and involvement. And perhaps that's the point: Do we really need any more rooting interest than human beings in distress?
Perhaps not, but "Arctic" is on thin ice. The film skates its icy surface without ever aspiring to be more than one more prolonged "can this guy survive?" tale. And while Penna shoots and edits the material well enough, its familiar paces probably wouldn't be tolerable were it not for Mikkelsen, whose grim visage crucially gives the film a racing mind and a beating heart. He's a study in minimalism all on his own, and thus a perfect fit for Penna's lean adventure.