Iceland | 2018 | Directed by Joe Penna
Logline: Stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash a man is forced to embark on a dangerous trek across the inhospitable landscape in search of rescue.
After a series of short films and television episodes ex-pat Brazilian writer/director Joe Penna turns his hand to the classic survival genre where a resourceful man is pitted against the ruthless natural elements and has hope tugged and whipped out of him. It might not sound much like an entertaining night at the movies, but Penna delivers a thoroughly gripping exercise in narrative efficiency.
The always brilliant Mad Mikkelsen plays Overgård, an Arctic pilot whose plane has crashed on the tundra. He is seen tending to his makeshift fishing holes and windup radio beacon at the start of the movie. It appears he’s been stranded for several days already, maybe longer, making use of the limited tools and supplies he has. He has to ration the fish he catches, and maintains a tight routine, via his watch alarm, activating the radio beacon and checking his bait line. There’s pretty little else to do. Except sleep, and thankfully the plane’s fuselage provides the essential shelter. And hope. Hope looms large.
A distant polar bear catches Overgård’s scent, but thankfully isn’t interested, since the creature has probably just eaten. Whew. But it’s only a matter of time before he and the polar bear will encounter closer quarters. Hopefully the man will be rescued before then. Surely. Yes, a helicopter swings by, but the wind gusts are too strong for the whirlybird to land. Overgård watches aghast …
With little-to-no dialogue, and an excellent ambient score from Joseph Trapanese, Penna delivers a superb vehicle for Mikkelsen. It reminds me of another recent survival flick, All is Lost with Robert Redford struggling alone on a damaged yacht on the open sea. Both excel with a pared-back narrative, with just the bare mechanics of weathered emotion and psychological resilience and the wrath of nature on display.
Survival movies are like horror movies for realists. A nightmare scenario made absolutely palpable. If the production values, direction, and acting are top notch, a sense of authenticity is heightened, and the movie will pack true visceral thrills. Unlike many low-budget exploitation-style survival movies, like the ones popular in the 70s, Arctic makes the viewer feel like they are watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
Made on a micro-budget (by Hollywood standards) Penna shot the movie over 19 days in Iceland, and Mikkelsen regarded it as the most difficult experience of his career. Although it’s not the first time he has commanded a picture with almost no dialogue set entirely outside, as he played a Viking warrior in Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterful Valhalla Rising.
Arctic is a mostly hushed and desolate journey, with the exception of a truly hair-raising encounter with a hungry polar bear - but we knew that was coming. Of course, Overgård’s plight is brutal, there is no denying that, just as any arduous trek across an unforgiving landscape would be, and Overgård has his work cut out for him, as he valiantly attempts to save not just his own life. It becomes the classic scenario of will he make it, or will he succumb? Penna pulls all the right strings at the right time, and delivers one of the best examples of the genre, and my first favourite for the year.