‘On the Ice’: Cold conscience

February 17, 2012

Life doesn’t seem to get much colder than it probably is during a winter in Barrow, the Alaskan town at the center of Andrew MacLean’s “On the Ice,” a tale of living and dying on the edge of the world.

Indeed, the central action of the film takes place out on the frozen ocean, where the locals regularly hunt for seals as a source of meat – using rifles and snowmobiles. It’s essentially the middle of nowhere, the shifting, icy ocean with water still flowing beneath.

There’s a simplicity to MacLean’s story-telling that is deceptive. The emotions are right out front in a community regularly confronted with the effects of alcoholism and meth use. Drinking is a definite issue to the two teens at the center of the film: Aivaaq (Frank Irelan) and Qalli (Josiah Patkotak).

Qalli is the student with a future: He’ll escape to college in the fall, his chance out of the dead-end world of Barrow. Aivaaqi’s his lifelong friend: his mother hopelessly alcoholic, his father long dead, himself on the road to alcoholism. Aivaaq’s a carefree kid without a future.

After a night of partying, Qalli goes home early, but connects with Aivaaq and their friend James to go hunting early in the morning. Qaali arrives to find Aivaaq and James fighting bitterly. When Qalli sees James about to kill Aivaaq with a shovel, he stops him – and after a scuffle, James winds up dead, having fallen on a knife Qalli was holding. Aivaaq, however, recovers consciousness and assumes that he killed James. Aivaaq lets him think it – and they dispose of the body, sending James and his snowmobile down a hole into the water.

Then they clean up the crime scene and race home to report that James just went through the ice while they were hunting. That triggers a huge search effort and intense focus on the two guilt-ridden teens. Aivaaq thinks he’s a killer and begins to come apart; Qalli knows who really killed James and tries to keep his unraveling pal from disintegrating altogether.

But secrets seldom stay that way and the path of the story in this film is pretty inevitable. Thankfully, MacLean spends most of his time focused on Qaali, because Patkotak is a wonderfully poker-faced actor. Irelan, on the other hand, seems to be working a little more obviously in scenes where he must play impairment and anxiety.

For good measure, MacLean throws in a conscientious, seemingly rule-bound father for Qaali. But the director still manages to surprise the audience with that character, who provides the moral underpinnings that have kept his son on the narrow path.

“On the Ice” is stark, unadorned, timeless and yet of the moment. Wear your mittens.

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