To reach a global audience, Brazilian YouTuber Joe Penna had to harness the power of visual storytelling, making his videos accessible to anyone around the world. Communicating through images and across language barriers is a practice he honed online. For his debut feature film, he’s put those skills to use, with the nearly-silent survival tale “Arctic.” This gripping, taciturn and wintry film set on a nameless frozen landscape isn’t necessarily what you would expect from the former YouTube sensation “MysteryGuitarMan,” but the film is a fine reminder of how cinematic language can and should transcend the spoken word.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is the perfect performer to star as Overgard, a man who has survived a plane crash in a punishing polar landscape. His Scandinavian flintiness brings an authenticity to Overgard’s knowingness and ability to survive in the harsh environment. He’s an actor who seems timeless, indestructible and determined. There is no doubt this man knows how to ice-fish.
Penna, who co-wrote the script with collaborator Ryan Morrison, doesn’t bother with backstory for his lead character, or even with an explanation for his plight. There is no fiery crash, and the film is all the better for this careful restraint. All we know is Overgard is digging SOS messages into the snow, bunking in the downed aircraft, dutifully winding up his distress signal and carefully packing his fish in an ice chest, caught with an elaborate rigging system.
Help arrives sooner than expected, but the rescue helicopter is caught in a vicious winter storm and goes down. Overgard can only rescue the badly injured female co-pilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). With a map and a sled scavenged from the helicopter, Overgard decides the best course of action is to hike to a seasonal way-station, in the hopes of saving himself and the incapacitated woman. All he knows about her comes from snapshot of herself with her partner and baby. That’s enough motivation for him.
“Arctic” is made up of Overgard’s patterns and wordless rituals. His watch beeps, telling him when to stop and when to go. He carefully charts his progress with a marker on the map. He feeds and cares for his charge, digs ice caves for shelter. But Mikkelsen’s performance is the most compelling in the moments in between, when he stops to pause, think and feel. Transporting her, he leans into her weight for a second, feeling the closeness of another human body in this barren, lonely landscape. Every now and then he looks up to the sky, taking in the weight of the situation. Mikkelsen is truly captivating in these moments — this is when the real acting happens, emotions barely but tangibly crossing across his face.
As good as he is, and as compelling as the film is, it is frustrating that the female character is nothing more than dead weight the male hero drags across the tundra. Smáradóttir’s performance had to have been difficult, portraying a barely conscious body lashed to a sled. For a film that feels both classic and innovative, it’s a shame that in their script, Penna and Morrison rely on the trope of the vulnerable, wordless female character as motivation for male action. It’s the one flaw of this otherwise meticulous portrait of survival and human determination.