We don’t even see Overgård’s small plane crash into the icy arctic wilderness. If anyone was with him they’re dead now (I’m assuming he didn’t eat them).
In fact we get no backstory at all. We know nothing about him, apart from what we witness.
It makes Arctic stand out, that Overgård is doubly isolated; physically so, but also from his past. There are no shortcuts for us to work out what kind of a man he is; whether his actions come from a need to make amends, or if he’s led a previously blameless existence. He’s a blank slate for us (and for some probably a mirror).
This is a riveting film, partly because it is also stark and spare; the only fluff is the padding inside his dirty red ski jacket and his eventual companion’s sleeping bag. But such austerity needs an exceptional performance to carry it.
Trudge forward Mads Mikkelsen, whose increasingly weatherbeaten face conveys every all-too-believable response to his life or death dilemmas. Survival stories are pointless if you aren’t invested in the protagonist, but we can’t help root for Overgård as Mikkelsen takes him from enigma to, emotionally if not practically, a sort of everyman. Even Overgård’s heroism is of the stoical kind, though he’s certainly built for this landscape.
He’s undoubtedly way more skilled in this environment than most of us, and he understands how to maximise his chances. It’s always daylight there (something which makes his struggle even more relentless and inescapable), but he sets alarms to stay on track, and ticks off the days.
Home is the small cargo plane; he fishes to survive, eating it raw. Trips outside into the inhospitable terrain are to work out potential escape routes, wind his radio, and clear lines of snow away so only the black rock below is visible. I wasn’t sure what he was doing until overhead shots revealed it as a giant (and perfectly formed!) SOS in black against the white snow.
A potential rescue by helicopter turns into disaster when it crashes nearby; the pilot is killed and the young woman with him (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) is badly injured. Overgård staples her wound and takes her back to the plane. She comes inadvertently bearing gifts, including a lighter, some food, and even a sled; and maybe a little bit of luck as one of his fishing lines has caught a giant sea trout. They have fish and noodles cooked in the plane that night, and it looks like the most delicious meal ever.
Her injuries and his dwindling supplies mean leaving the downed plane and trying to reach safety is their only option. Packing her up in the sleeping bag, he straps her to the sled and starts walking, dragging it behind him.
Director and co-writer Joe Penna certainly puts Overgård through it, and there are times, as he determinedly trudges onwards, dragging his companion, that it feels as if we’re complicit in his suffering. What more can go wrong, I wondered, before something else went wrong. But it all feels very real, and at 98 minutes, resolution comes briskly for us if not for him (though as he tries to pull the sled again and again up a rocky cliff it feels agonisingly slow).
The snowstorms, sub-zero temperatures, and empty, inhospitable expanse are lethal but neutral. More aggressive is a polar bear; its snarling head squeezed through the entrance to a small cave in which the pair are sheltering is terrifying.
It’s an interesting bond, the one between Overgård and the young woman, based certainly on fellow feeling, though also partly on guilt and debt. Even though she’s mostly unconscious, there’s an interdependence there. The helicopter crashed because it came to rescue Overgård; the pilot is dead and she is dangerously ill. She’s given him a sled, fire, and food. He aims to save her, but as that connection strengthens, his few words move from practicalities to soothing reassurance.
The spaces are vast and flat, surrounded by jutting hills. The wasteland may be pure white interspersed with black jagged boulders, but above it’s surprisingly colourful: subtle tones of peach, grey, white and pale blue divide land and sky. Distant shots show just the red jacket and olive green sleeping bag against the white snow, moving slowly.
While usually I’d rather you watched a movie reflected in the back of a spoon than not watch one at all, Arctic deserves a big screen: for its vast emptiness, the desolation, the little figure struggling footstep by footstep towards safety while pulling a sick woman behind him.
Even Overgård’s moral dilemmas, his balancing of logic and humanity – abandon her for good, push on with her even if it makes it more likely neither will survive – need a space big enough for their implications.
Overgård the man, though, is stripped back emotionally to his bare bones. Masculine without ever being toxically so, Overgård is big and brawny, capable, and used to the cold. But there’s no one else to see or hear what he does, and no one to impress. This is the real Overgård. Resolve, fear, heartbreak, astonishment, near-hysteria and resignation flit across his exhausted face at different times.
I liked Arctic‘s layered approach to what survival means, whether taking an “every man for himself” approach can ever be worth it. Though this gritty story also works simply as a will they/won’t they make it movie, too.
It’s a fight against the odds but it always feels believable. Overgård’s stoicism, physical strength, emotional resilience and knowledge may not be a common combination but it’s not inexplicable. He’s a hero, not a superhero.
Watch the Arctic trailer below: