Mads Mikkelsen v. the Uncaring Universe.

You gotta hand it to Nordic filmmakers for committing to their minimalist premises. Hailing from Iceland, Joe Penna’s Arctic comes a few months after the single-location, hella-claustrophobic The Guilty out of Denmark. But where The Guilty was an intense character study, Arctic is about a cargo pilot named Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) who’s trying to get himself and a comatose woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) to safety after their respective vehicles crash within the titular circle — and that’s pretty much it for story and character.

All we know of Overgård is his name and occupation, and all we know of the woman is that she has a picture of her family, doesn’t speak English, and will die very soon if Overgård doesn’t get both of them out of the fucking snow. But this lack of context is also Arctic’s strength: It isn’t weighted down with the backstory of past traumas they’re trying to escape, and what few words the dying woman speaks throughout are left unsubtitled. That they’re on the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid and desperately trying not to fall off is all the dramatic tension necessary, though Joseph Trapanese’s sparse, droney score is as chilly as the visuals, adding to the mood of bitter helplessness. Arctic doesn’t break new ground, but it charts its own path quite well.

Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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