FILM REVIEW: Joe Penna's Debut, 'Arctic', is anything but Cold
A debut feature can make or break a director. Ridely Scott’s The Duellists was the first step on the path to extraordinary films like Alien and Blade Runner. Tarantino’s excellently violent and brilliantly brutal Reservoir Dogs became a well-deserved cult classic. Recently, comedian, Jordan Peele’s Get Out proved to be no laughing matter and scored a Best Picture nomination at last year’s Oscars. Then you have debuts like The Room. Tommy Wiseau’s infamous masterclass in how not to direct a film is something that simply must be seen. Brilliant in its badness, Wiseau missed the mark so completely that he actually ended up scoring a hit.
This month, Joe Penna, a Brazilian musician and filmmaker, ventures out onto the silver screen for the first time. Penna is mostly known for his YouTube channel ‘MysteryGuitarMan’ (the most subscribed channel in Brazil), but is taking a big step with his first feature, Arctic. And raising the stakes even higher is the inclusion of everyone’s favourite Danish Bond villain, Mads Mikkelsen in the lead role.
Set somewhere in (you guessed it,) the Arctic, Mikkelsen stars as a man who is truly pushed to the edge after being stranded in the frozen wastes. Bent on surviving, he must decide whether to wait for rescue in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or find his own salvation beyond the bleak wilderness. When his situation turns from terrible to even worse to almost-unbearable-to-watch, our stranded pilot must decide what truly is important to him.
Arctic is a slow burn, taking us on a strange, tough and inescapably epic journey. It’s an unconventional film: there are no special effects (save one very frightening polar bear) and no backstory. We know nothing about our protagonist – why he came to the Arctic; the details of how he became stranded; if he has family. Heck, we don’t even know his first name. But there is something so captivating about Mikkelsen’s performance and Penna’s direction that leads you to root for this lone survivor.
Shot in Sweden, the vast and superbly bright contrast on screen in Arctic makes for stark viewing. The stunning and harrowing visuals really put Mikkelsen’s uncomfortable journey into perspective while the faint and subtle musical score becomes the perfect companion along the way. Mikkelsen himself told Variety that this was his hardest shoot to date, which perhaps contributed to a performance defined by extremes. He drifts from the barest comfort and contentment to being overwhelmed with rage to absolute joy at the discovery of a small BIC lighter. Indeed, the scene in which he pieces together a fairly inedible dish of noodles and fish is a delightful reminder to savour the little things.
The film’s honesty regarding its portrayal of survival can be perplexing, however. It is brutal and raw in its depiction of one man alone, eating raw fish and using every reserve he has to push himself towards safety. But it also romanticises the inevitable fight with a bear, along with some other surely impossible aspects of arctic survival. But this is the silver screen, after all. And Penna’s depiction of attempting to overcome such a hopeless situation is at least sincere.
At some point in our survivor’s trial, a rescue helicopter Is sent for him, only for it (and the audience’s hopes) to crash and burn in front of his eyes. There is one survivor, however, providing Mikkelsen not only with a companion but a further reason to persist. The introduction of a second character is really the strong point of this film. It not only shakes things up but gives Penna a chance to display the innate kindness in humanity. It also cements the likeability of the stranded Mikkelsen, proving we don’t need extraneous details (like his first name) to make him feel like a real person.
Although the arrival of this second character is welcome, her severe injuries from the crash render her completely immobile, making her something of annoyance to audience members who had been committed to Mikkelsen’s unrelenting march towards salvation. Seeing him dragged down by his new companion is excruciating, but it’s also a clever technique by Penna. The frustration we feel ultimately makes the viewer feel silly, even callous when we realise that we are resenting Mikkelsen’s selflessly caring for an injured person. It is a reminder that we all need an occasional wakeup call regarding our humanity.
Arctic is a big film, both thematically and visually. But Joe Penna has dodged the bullet that should have taken down Wiseau – the danger of being over-ambitious and failing to deliver on your vision. Instead, he has produced a slow but exhilarating guide to survival that suggests your humanity is your greatest tool. Yes, the film feels (ironically,) a little too comfortable in places, with few real risks being taken by the filmmaker, but that’s something that will likely develop over his career. This is a debut. It’s a low-budget indie that was selected for Cannes 2018. It’s a film you should definitely spend an afternoon watching. Unless you’re scared of polar bears. Then, maybe not.
4 Stars out of 5