Sometimes all a movie needs to offer is the spectacle of an actor suffering for his art — or at least appearing to. Do you long to see Mads Mikkelsen, his face chapped and frostbitten, fighting to stay alive after a downed plane leaves his character marooned in the frozen north? If so, “Arctic,” the feature debut of Joe Penna (a Brazilian-born YouTube video artist), delivers what you desire, making effective use of both the star’s rugged persona and unforgiving Icelandic landscapes.
Back story is scare — we know it’s a cargo plane that crashed, but that’s about it. Mikkelsen is introduced chipping away at rock; an omniscient camera pulls back to reveal that he has engraved a colossal “S.O.S.” in the ground to be visible from the sky. Process is paramount. Mikkelsen catches Arctic trout, which he sometimes eats raw. (It looks tasty!) Later, he cooks one into a princely feast, mixing it with the contents of a noodle cup.
This could have turned into the snow-trudge equivalent of a road movie, packed with incident after incident as Mikkelsen — pulling the immobilized survivor of a separate helicopter crash (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) to safety — treks to a new location. But “Arctic” has the courage to avoid obvious payoffs. (The star fends off a bear instead of fighting with one, à la the wolves at the end of “The Grey.”)
To a small degree, the intense physicality is undercut by the synthesizer riffs of Joseph Trapanese’s score, which provides continual reminders that this is only a movie. If Mikkelsen and his traveling companion are stuck with just the howl of the wind, we should be, too.