Directed and co-written by Joe Penna comes Arctic, a Mads Mikkelsen-led film that debuted in 2018 and competed for the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Made for only $2 million and earning just north of $4 million, this film has been mostly overlooked and underdiscussed since its release despite positive critical appraisal. It now lives in the streaming ether (currently on Hulu) only to be discovered by indecisive, slap-happy swipers and forlorn film nerds panning for a golden cinematic nugget. Clocking in at an ultra-lean 97 minutes, this is what you might refer to as a tenderloin of the survivalist drama -- there's absolutely no fat to chew here from a filmmaking perspective. Penna keeps everything moving along with ease and never compromises the overarching tonality. At the center is the always-captivating Mads Mikkelsen, who is more than up to the challenge of filling the frame and holding the screen for every moment of this icy film's runtime. So behold all you desperate cinephile prospectors, I've found us a diamond in the snow!
Overgård (Mikkelsen) is stranded in the Arctic abyss, living out of his crashed plane, and awaiting rescue. It's unclear exactly how long he's been out there, but he's competently settled into a survivalist routine of charting his surroundings, catching fish, and sending out distress signals using a hand-cranking-powered generator. Overgård is impressively savvy, but more importantly coolheaded and stoic -- he possesses the same sort of collected and preoccupied demeanor reminiscent of Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland in Cast Away or Robert Redford's old man in All Is Lost. Despite limited resources and the looming threat of a patrolling polar bear, the audience is led to feel cautiously confident that Overgård has what it takes to survive. And then, after only fifteen-ish minutes of screen time, a rescue helicopter shows up responding to the distress signals. But this is where things take a dark turn in Arctic.
The rescue helicopter tries to land in the blustery conditions, but unfortunately crashes, killing the pilot and severely injuring the passenger (Thelma Smáradóttir). The hope of escape from this desolate ice hell for Overgård immediately fizzles and flips into a whole host of newfound burden; he is not only no closer to being rescue, but is now forced into a caregiving role for the unconscious passenger, who may very well die without medical assitance. After attending to the injured woman's wounds, Overgård searches the wreckage of the crashed helicopter for food and supplies. He understands that any hope of survival ultimately means leaving his plane, journeying into the wilderness, and trekking to the seasonal refuge charted on the map that he found in the wrecked helicopter. Overgård packs up everything that he needs, fastens the woman to a sled (because she is barely alive and unable to walk), and embarks out into the Arctic tundra.
There's no need for me to touch on every plot point, especially because there's only 97 minutes to recap. As you might expect, things gradually get worse and worse for Overgård.In order to survive, every decision will determine whether they live or die. Their food must be rationed. Their supplies must be conserved for as long as possible. And every step Overgård takes must maximize his energy as they inch towards rescue. The unforgiving terrain, a hungry polar bear, and the woman's worsening condition tests the audience's belief in Overgård's chances of survival. As the end draws near, Overgård has no choice but to exhaust every resource and supply he has at his disposal to get them both to safety alive -- but are his resiliency and humanity fulfilled? I'll let you watch to see the film's climax.
As uncompromising as Arctic is, every plot wrinkle makes for a rewarding, albeit stressful, watchalong. Aside from Mikkelsen's immense screen presence, the inspired work here is the script. Having a rescue helicopter crash in the first third of the movie is a clear and deliberate subversion away from what we've come to expect from a surival movie. And while some of the narrative beats from there on out might feel somewhat obvious or known, they are no less effective. It's an understated script almost entirely absent of dialogue -- but there are just enough details and checkpoints along the way to maintain the established tempo. As a director, Penna is keen to let Tómas Örn Tómasson's wideshots of the barren, snow-covered landscape do most of the talking, which are as breathtaking as they are disconcerning. All the craft work here is up to snuff, and everything coalesces nicely under Penna's creative umbrella.
And then there's Mikkelsen, who has increasingly become a must-watch performer for me. I'll admit, had it not been Mads as the star headlining this movie, I would've likely swiped right past it and never given it a chance. Since first seeing him opposite Daniel Craig in Casino Royale back in 2006, it is amazing to consider the ranging filmography he has put together in the years to follow. He's been at the center of big box office entertainment, showing up in an MCU movie (Doctor Strange), a Star Wars spin-off (Rogue One), and a Harry Potter Wizarding World sequel (Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore). Moreover, he's starred several smaller indie movies including The Hunt, At Eternity's Gate, Another Round, and Riders of Justice -- all of which I would highly recommend. Needless to say, he is chameleon actor capable of shapeshifting and embodying any type of character. In Arctic, Mikkelsen is asked to do a lot of heavy lifting (sometimes quite literally), and he is more than up to the challenge. Without his magnetism and gravitas as a performer, this movie might miss the mark and feel underhwhelming; but everything he's doing here is restrained and relatable, and it almost feels like a documentary at times. It's hard work to make it look that easy, and because Mikkelsen is so great, I'm confident saing that this movie wouldn't work half as well as it was't in it. And that's what you might call a freezing cold, Artic-chilly take on a really underrated movie.
What the hell is a Franconian-style Rotbier Lager? I have absolutely no idea what that actually entails, but I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed this beer and think its a great pairing with Arctic. Described as a lager lover's lager, this is creamy, malty beer with flavor blasts of caramel and cocoa powder. I think a lot of beer drinkers looking for something a little different would enjoy Thither They Return. Let me put it this way -- if I was in Mads Mikkelsen's place in Arctic, I would definitely not have survived. But if Mikkelsen was sitting on the couch and drinking this beer, I'm confident he also would have enjoyed it.
Thither They Return Lager - Vienna | 5.1% Roaring Table Brewing Company @roaringtable