The situation is simple to describe and hard to resolve in Joe Penna’s debut feature “Arctic,” with Mads Mikkelsen in the only speaking role. A pilot has crashed his single-engine plane in the middle of a snowy nowhere. The film tells us nothing about the man except his name—it’s Overgård, according to a patch on his parka. And it shows his struggle to stay alive entirely in the present tense. No flashbacks or cutaways, just him there, in a solo survival saga in the tradition of “Cast Away,” “The Martian” or Robert Redford’s sailboat saga “All Is Lost.” Everything depends on the pilot’s courage and resourcefulness, just as everything in the genre depends on the filmmaker’s skill, which in this case is exceptional.
Joe Penna comes to feature films via an unusual route. He was a YouTube phenomenon from Brazil with millions of international followers, a performing musician before he started making TV commercials, TV shows and shorts. His lack of feature experience makes it all the more impressive that’s he’s succeeded at a daunting task—holding an audience for more than an hour and a half with an austere story about an initially opaque character in the most minimalist of settings, a deep-frozen version of the trackless Sahara.
It helps to have a great actor as the star. Mads Mikkelsen gives a master class in minimalist acting. But acting alone can’t sustain a one-man show, or rather a one-man show plus an unconscious young woman who’s suffered critical injuries in an attempt to rescue the hero.
What does the trick here is a whole concatenation of elements: elegantly spare cinematography, by Tómas Örn Tómasson; an eloquent score, by Joseph Trapanese; and a screenplay, written by the director with Ryan Morrison, that sets up a basic and suspenseful dilemma. Overgård has radioed his position, but there’s been no response. Either he waits for help in the relatively safe fuselage of his plane or he heads out, with the injured woman, on a cross-country trek to an emergency station that may not be where his map puts it.
There’s no pretending that the illusion of reality is complete. It threatens to shatter now and then, and the ending is contrivance pure and simple. Yet Joe Penna’s film is notable for how much we learn about the pilot, and the young woman, without being told, and how much we care about them. She has a husband and child, seen in a photo she’s brought with her. She’s been happy in the past; maybe she’ll be happy again. He is practical by habit and generous by nature, with an instinctive empathy that leads to the memorable sight of him hugging her tightly to keep her warm. “Arctic” is a lesson in lessness, coolly observed and warmly felt.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.