I want to take a little bit of time here to talk about Joe Penna.
He’s the man who directed Arctic: sold as a taut, sparse psycho-thriller following a man trying to survive the bitter cold and various environmental threats of the Arctic, it…well, it had Mads Mikklesen in it, so I was already sold. But anyway, Joe Penna – specifically, I want to look at his back catalogue, because it’s a very interesting path that’s led him to this first feature film. He started out more than ten years ago, as one of the first Youtubers to really strike a chord (yes, pun intended, given the guitar-themed nature of his channel) on the platform, with his curious, playful stop-motion shorts and musical-inspired viral hits. From there, he worked through a series of curiously dissonant projects – from indie interactive webseries to ads for Coca-Cola, this is a guy who’s had his fingers in almost every pie you can think of.
And that’s, perhaps, why Arctic feels like such a deft, confident movie. Telling a story without significant dialogue or backstory requires an impeccable grasp on the language of cinema, and that’s exactly what Joe Penna uses to unfold the sparse, engaging story at the heart of Arctic.
The film doesn’t bother with much in the way of context, instead leaving us to gather what we can from clues scattered through the story – we follow Overgård (an extraordinary Mads Mikklesen, but then, is he ever not?), a man stranded in the unrelenting Arctic landscape as he waits for rescue. Now, that’s a simple enough premise, and one that can tip over swiftly into the distinctly cheesy, the man-versus-nature triumph overwhelming anything else significant the film might have to say. Usually, flicks like these (127 Hours, All is Lost, Jerry) are engaging for as long as we’re trapped their with our protagonists – but making something stick beyond that is an impressive feat, and it’s one that Arctic pulls off with great style.
The lack of traditional dialogue and character introductions forces us to engage with this movie on a level deeper than we’re usually expecting to, and it makes Arctic one of the densest and most rewarding viewing experiences I’ve had in a long time. Bolstered by a muscular, charismatic central performance from Mikklesen – rejecting the tropes of the overly masculine mountain man via various emotional breakdowns and lingering attempts at human connection – Arctic is an impressive experiment in how much story you can tell without going out of your way to tell a story at all. Many films may claim to have a lifelike quality to them, but few will live up to that in the way that Arctic does. It’s raw, real, at times uncomfortable – Mikklesen himself stated it was one of the hardest shoots of his career, and it shows – and the naturally breathtaking Arctic backdrop (here, filled in by Iceland) makes handsome cinematography a pretty easy goal to reach for.
What I admire most about Arctic (I’ve written that word so many times now that it has ceased to actually have any meaning at all, and I’m trying to figure out if I actually meant Antarctic all this time) is how much it seems to respect the viewer – in fact, it demands that respect, given the spareness and cut-down nature of the storytelling. Bold, different, and frequently gorgeous, Arctic makes for one of the most impressive debuts I’ve seen in a long time – and is proof that those who come up through the traditional filmmaking bastion aren’t always the ones making the films that matter.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via The Irish Times)