“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” — Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable
Mads Mikkelsen fights the elements in Arctic, a chiller-thriller with ambitions far beyond that of mere genre thrills. He plays Overgård, a man whose plane has crashed in the middle of the snow desert, patiently waiting to be rescued. It looks like help has finally arrived in the form of a helicopter passing by, but it dramatically crashes in the midst of a snowstorm. The pilot dies instantly, while one woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) barely survives. With her condition rapidly deteriorating, Overgård must trek across the unforgiving wilderness in order to find help. Along the way he comes up against inclement weather, challenging terrain, angry polar bears, and perhaps the worst enemy of all: his own self-doubt.
Think of Arctic like The Revenant without the pretentious voiceover — mostly a tale of how far one actor is willing to go in the name of cinema. It’s as much a performance of physical prowess as it is one of acting ability. Mikkelsen does a great job depicting a man persisting against all the odds. He is not a superhero, and is unable to fight bears with his bare hands or trek a long way without physically degenerating. Although he has technical know-how with ropes and icepicks, what really sustains Overgård is the desire to survive. In this respect, Arctic becomes an intriguing elegy to Man’s willingness to keep going when everything else around him compels him to stop. This elevates the film above the thriller genre into something far more compelling and existential.
The strength of Arctic is contained in its mythical simplicity, reducing Overgård’s quest to the absolute bare minimum of elements needed in order to make it work. We are given no information about the character except that he is stuck, making him more of an archetype (hence the Beckett reference) than a character in his own right. People will imagine themselves in this situation, wondering if they have what it takes to survive. This minimalist sense is also stressed by the dialogue, which is almost non-existent, though a large portion of the screenplay is dedicated solely to (very understandable) expletives. This technique works for the first two-thirds of the film, yet by the end it needs far more conflict and suspenseful sequences to make it an entertainment.
Arctic has the potential to be a cult classic, if there is a big enough audience for Mads Mikkelsen that wants to see him freeze amongst the snow. The Cannes programmers have understood this appeal, screening it at midnight, yet while there are a few wince-inducing moments taking place in extremely small spaces, Arctic might not do quite enough to really get late night crowds going. Instead, it could remain a curious oddity in Mikkelsen’s career, much like The End, which saw Gerard Depardieu go hunting for rabbits only to end up completely and utterly lost in the woods.
Still, it remains evidence that Mikkelsen is one of the best character actors around. There is a reason he has appeared in a James Bond, Marvel and Star Wars movie, as well as starred as Hannibal Lecter in the eponymous TV series. Arctic is yet more evidence this man needs his own film franchise.