The Hero Journey in Against the Ice

“Against the Ice” delivers all the delirious period drama thrills and survival horror angst that you could want from a movie with that title. Within a very short amount of time, Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick set up their story—an adaptation of Arctic explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen’s memoir Two Against the Ice—as the sort of grisly and high-toned boy’s adventure story where the worst can and probably will happen, especially when you’re expecting it.

Coster-Waldau plays Mikkelsen, the haunted sea captain who leads poor naïve mechanic Iver Iversen (Joe Cole) on a perilous journey to a cairn (or a “a stack of stones one can see from far away,” as one character helpfully explains) far away from their ship, the Alabama, and its crew. Buried within this cairn is a written record of the last Danish expedition’s findings. That prized document suggests, in no uncertain terms, that Danish explorers, and not the American adventurer Robert Peary, had already discovered Greenland’s Northern-most border, which in turn suggests that the US “has no claim” in the Arctic, as Mikkelsen explains to Iversen.

You might be wondering how or why proving this extremely particular claim might be the goal for a  Arctic-set action-adventure about two men who must kill a sled dog or two in order to survive. Derrick and Coster-Waldau immediately develop viewers’ expectations through campy and economic dialogue, like when another explorer warns Iversen that he should not befriend the dogs because sometimes, if worst comes to worst, you must “shoot the worst dog” and “feed it to the others.” Soon afterwards, Iversen heedlessly opines that “Once you learn to trust your lead dog, it all kind of falls into place.”

That sort of glaringly ironic declaration might put you on edge well before the first dog-related incident. You might also be hooked and/or desperate to stop watching after the brutally unsensational second incident, which adds a hilariously foreboding edge to even innocent-seeming dialogue exchanges, like when Mikkelsen says that “Denmark will thank you one day, Iver Iversen” and then announces, after they find the cairn they’re looking for, that they’re headed back to the Alabama and then off to “home sweet home.” This is well before icicles settle into Iversen and Mikkelsen’s beards. After that, they bond like normal turn-of-the-century men by talking about their first sexual experiences or whether they’d ever consider cannibalism.

To be fair, “Against the Ice” features some tense and well-paced set pieces, as well as some handsome, atmospheric outdoor photography (lensed by Danish cinematographer Torben Forsberg), some of which was shot in Greenland. Cole and Coster-Waldau are also both terrific in their respective roles, even if they’re not the real stars of the movie. Well, Coster-Waldau obviously is, given his multi-hyphenate role in getting this movie completed as is. But not for his on-camera performance. As a screenwriter, Coster-Waldau (and Derrick) packs every scene with the sort of lurid and surprising details that are sure to delight fans of airport paperbacks and/or B-movie suspense.

Don’t let the mid-sized budget fool you: “Against the Ice” constantly tells you what sort of movie it is and not just when computer-animated polar bears attack or when the prim, but blessedly hammy character actor Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones”) shows up, in character as a Danish cultural minister, and makes pronouncements about the fate of Iversen and Mikkelsen from the safety of a (probably well-heated) conference room. Dance makes a meal of the word “lieutenant” and also gives very good monologue, as when he describes an explorer’s “single most important task.” Obviously “blood, sweat, and tears” are involved.

Days pass in a sobering and clearly-delineated flurry of intertitles (ex: “DAY 132”) and eventually you start to anticipate mirage-like phantoms, like hot air balloons and stranded automobiles, as much as gonzo dialogue, like the above-mentioned cannibal talk. “Against the Ice” isn’t a horror movie, so you might not be ready for Iversen and Mikkelsen to conclude that “if my hands were removed before I die”—“Yeah, I could quite happily eat you.” Polar bears and lanced boils are great, too, but “Against the Ice” keeps you in suspense by making you wonder how long you’ll have to wait for the next dreadful and surreal development. The answer’s usually not very long at all.