RiverRun 2016: The Polar Bear Club


polarThe harsh Minnesota winter provides an apt metaphor for the fragility of life in this quiet but unexpectedly moving drama about an elderly man and his circle of buddies coming to terms with mortality.

From the first scene depicting the men undressing in a garage and preparing to plunge into an icy lake, the film confronts viewers with bodies — in this case, slightly hunched, flabby and paunchy around the middle — and how they gradually decay and break down. The ritual of the polar plunge takes on different shades of meaning as the film unspools towards its inevitable conclusion. It’s frightening and exhilarating. It could result in sudden death, but without it the men may have nothing to live for.

The tension of the narrative comes not from freak occurrence, but from the utter predictability of events. Almost every heartbreaking moment of disintegration and estrangement is foreshadowed. With cinematography that is both bleak and breathtaking, the film yields rich symbolism. For example, a scene of the protagonist, Harold, plodding across a frozen lake intercut with his adolescent grandson skating on a hockey rink suggest that the ice is for both an arena to test and prove their masculinity. For viewers of any age, the film poses a fundamental question about the thin line between living with urgency and committing folly. When does caution become surrender? When does bravado become suicide? What are the consequences of each choice?   

The Polar Bear Club screens on Friday at 5 p.m. at UNCSA Gold Theatre and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at UNCSA Main Theatre.

— Jordan Green