You think you’re having a hard winter? Just wait till you see what Mads Mikkelsen has to deal with in “Arctic.”
While shooting the survival drama in Iceland, the Danish actor, best known for roles in “Casino Royale” and “Hannibal,” lost 15 pounds — unintentionally — under the grueling conditions of the 19-day shoot, which entailed walking 12 to 15 hours each day in the snow, on foot. It is all in the service of a story about Man vs. Nature that you’ve probably heard before. But in this movie’s case, Mikkelsen’s hard work pays off — with a thoroughly engrossing take on a familiar scenario.
Those same harsh elements seem to have pushed director and co-writer Joe Penna (making his feature debut) to an unusual level of restraint. Based on the filmmaker’s YouTube channel, MysteryGuitarMan, where he posts music videos with rapid-fire editing, his skill set appears to be best suited for the short attention spans of the modern age.
Here, however, Penna is just as patient as his subject: a cargo pilot called Overgard (Mikkelsen), whose plane has crashed in the Arctic. Mikkelsen is perfect in the role, his weathered face close to absolutely stoic, yet still able to subtly convey all the frustration and anguish of his situation. In this extreme, isolated environment, modern technology is useless. Reduced to using his own hair as bait, Overgard jerry-rigs a fish trap that provides him with his only source of food.
But the hunger and the cold may not be the worst things he will have to face. The vast white expanse that envelops him also exacerbates a profound loneliness. When a failed rescue attempt strands a member of the rescue party (Maria Thelma Smaradottir), Overgard finds a purpose beyond himself, as he struggles to keep the injured woman alive.
The viewer is never troubled with a backstory. Yet with minimal dialogue, Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison manage to immerse us in a tale that plays out as something pure and instinctual. That makes this nail-biting narrative a showcase for Mikkelsen, whose character speaks volumes, even when he barely blinks an eye. The actor exudes the steely determination of a young Clint Eastwood — you could call “Arctic” a cold spaghetti western — as well as a sublimated energy that recalls the intensity of Klaus Kinski, but with that late German actor’s turbulent volatility turned inward.
With their similar titles, the frigid “Arctic” might easily be confused with “Polar,” Jonas Akerlund’s ultraviolent crime thriller on Netflix, also starring Mikkelsen, as a John Wick-like assassin who takes one more job before he retires. Yet although both of these cold movies rely on a single actor’s singular gifts, and both feature a nearly indestructible hero who relies on his wits, they are — ahem — polar opposites. If the over-the-top Netflix flick is ultimately forgettable, “Arctic” is a film for all seasons.
PG-13. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains strong language and some bloody images. 98 minutes.