If you were following the career of Brazilian YouTube star Joe Penna (aka #MysteryGuitarMan) up to a year ago, you probably didn't guess that for his next trick he'd unveil a feature debut as impressive as Arctic. The video artist specialized in zany shorts featuring innovative concepts. Nothing he'd done, though — not even the prescient "Bohemian Slide" (yup, "Bohemian Rhapsody" performed on slide whistle) — hinted that he'd give us the first great film of 2019.
Talk about in medias res. The movie opens mid-scrape. One second the screen is black. The next, Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) is alone in a white wasteland clearing snow with a broken shovel. We haven't a clue what's happened, who he is or what he's up to until, moments later, an overhead shot reveals the supersize "SOS" he's written in dark ice.
It becomes clear that Overgård has been stranded for some time and settled into a pragmatic routine. He's fashioned the cabin of the small plane he crash-landed into a kind of shanty. Nearby, he's chopped holes in the frozen floor and rigged fishing lines that clatter when a trout is caught. He eats the fish raw while gazing out a window at the vastness, as though having dinner in front of the TV.
Every day like clockwork, he trudges to high ground and cranks a hand-operated signaling device. Another appointed round takes him to a stack of black stones not far from the aircraft. When, early on, he turns and says, "See you tomorrow," I figured Penna was about to go Wilson on us, giving Overgård a companion like Tom Hanks' volleyball in Cast Away. Luckily, I was wrong. We're given reason to believe the rocks mark the grave of Overgård's passenger or copilot, though details aren't offered.
That's one of the wonderful things about the movie, cowritten by Penna with Ryan Morrison. It's the most minimalist man-versus-nature saga ever. Zero flashbacks. No voice-over. Overgård doesn't talk to himself. In fact, there's barely any dialogue, which lends the affair a Quest for Fire-meets-All Is Lost vibe. The viewer is left to fill in the blanks.
There's more than a little Book of Job in Arctic's DNA, as well. The poor guy can't catch a break. All that work, and a giant polar bear comes sniffing around his trout-sicle stash. All that cranking and, when a helicopter finally comes to the rescue, it crashes in heavy winds. He has to rescue the surviving copilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), strap her to a sled and attempt to haul her to safety across hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain. She's unconscious most of the time, so doubling the cast doesn't double the dialogue.
You know the filmmakers had Job on the brain because, after dragging the sled an incredible distance, Overgård falls into a crevice, finds his leg pinned between rocks and realizes he's going to need to make like James Franco in 127 Hours. Before he does, the poor guy gazes heavenward, laughing through tears. What next?
Movie critic law prohibits saying more than that Penna's celebration of the human spirit proves a triumph on all fronts. Shot in Iceland, Arctic features awe-inspiring visuals courtesy of Tómas Örn Tómasson. Joseph Trapanese's synth-infused score charges events with chilling currents of tension and dread.
Mikkelsen gives an astonishingly expressive performance in what is essentially a silent film. You owe it to yourself to see this. It'll be a cold day in hell before a better chronicle of cold days in hell comes along.