When the gamble is man vs. nature, the smart bet is almost always on the house. Unless the man is Mads Mikkelsen — the 53-year-old Danish actor with the limestone cheekbones and a will, apparently, of pure tungsten steel — and he’s starring in Arctic, a stark survival tale in which simplicity is both its best and most brutal attribute (besides, perhaps, its profoundly watchable star).
Mikkelsen is Overgård, though you won’t really need to know his name as the narrative opens on a downed plane in a vast, deserted polar landscape: For long stretches, the only sounds on screen are the unremitting howl of wind, the occasional grunt of human exertion, and the harsh scrape of ice against metal as he makes his daily calculations and maintains his meager food supply.
When a helicopter he’s trying desperately to flag down makes a disastrous crash landing, Overgård suddenly has a new, albeit barely conscious, companion (María Thelma Smáradóttir), and a more urgent reason to attempt to reach a rescue station. In long, artfully framed takes, Brazilian-born filmmaker Joe Penna conveys the scale and scope of the pair’s isolation, even as small moments loom large: The famished bliss of tearing into a raw package of instant ramen; the dull, dangerous purple of frostbitten toes; a close brush with the most terrifying bear this side of The Revenant. Penna’s concept is hardly new, but his execution is sharp, clean, and smartly paced; a harrowing postcard from the void. B+