Review: The Snow Walker (2003)

In the mood for a movie filmed in an exotic location? It’s hard to imagine a location much more exotic or remote than the Canadian Arctic. The region consists of a huge expanse of land and forms the Canadian provinces of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The remote Arctic island of Ellesmere in Nunavut is one of the closest landmasses to the North Pole.

Most of us Americans, to the extent we think about Canada at all, think only of that part of the country that borders the northern continental United States. Yet by any standard Canada is an enormous country, much of it inaccessible, extremely remote and sparsely populated. Nunavut province alone contains nearly 800,000 square miles. Only 30,000 people, mostly native Inuit, live in these vast expanses of Arctic tundra.

Canada is so large that it can fit three Europes within its landmass. Except for its most southern regions, Canada is also wild and largely undeveloped. In most places above the Arctic Circle, roads are largely non-existent. If it were not for the airplane, many of these small towns would only be accessible by boat, and only then during the summer.

It is something of a mystery why we don’t know more about this area, since it is within a few hours flying time from the United States. Happily, if you rent the movie The Snow Walker, you will learn plenty about northernmost Canada. You will also enjoy a compelling story about a lost pilot and a sick Inuit woman in his charge trying to survive in one of the most inhospitable and remote places on earth.

Those who expect great special effects will find none in this movie, which takes place in 1953. Charlie Halliday (Barry Pepper) is a World War Two pilot who, unlike many of his friends, survived the war. He finds employment in Yellowknife in the Yukon ferrying cargo across the Canadian Arctic to remote locations. Charlie is 32 but still somewhat immature as well as short-tempered. He is also suffering the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder from his experiences during the war. On short notice, he is assigned to run some cargo to a very remote Inuit village, leaving behind a budding relationship with a hostess at a local bar. He and his pontoon plane eventually find the tiny village. There he discovers a sick young Inuit woman named Kanallaq (Anabella Piugattuk) who he halfheartedly agrees to fly back to Yellowknife for medical care. As you might expect, his errand of mercy is short lived. His engine malfunctions and he and Kanallaq find themselves on the Arctic tundra literally hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost and without a working radio to call for help.

Their bleak prospects for survival grow bleaker when Charlie makes an audacious attempt to hoof it to the nearest village hundreds of miles away. He promises Kanallaq that he will return with a plane that will take her to Yellowknife. After a couple days on the tundra, he discovers he made a terrible mistake. He is wholly unprepared for the reality of life on the tundra, even during the warmest part of the year. He frequently falls into bogs and is nearly eaten alive by the omnipresent mosquitoes and black flies. He very nearly goes insane.

Fortunately, although quite sick, Kanallaq tracks him down on the tundra and cares for him. Her English is very poor, but they find ways to communicate. Despite the odds, Kanallaq nurtures Charlie back into health and shows him how her people survive on the tundra. They eventually return to their downed plane, but because he veered off his flight plan, there are no signs of a rescue party. Their chances for survival get bleaker, and Kanallaq’s illness (probably tuberculosis) gets progressively worse.

Piugattuk is a beautiful but unknown Inuit actress. According to IMDB, this is her only movie, although she did star in a mini-series in 2005. She proves herself an accomplished actress. Their survival story feels uncomfortably real and is very well done. Charlie and Kanallaq draw closer over time, but their relationship does not really blossom into romance. Rather Charlie discovers what has probably eluded him the most in his life: genuine intimacy with another human being. He also learns about love, not the romantic kind, but the unselfish and giving kind from one human being to another.

In short, The Snow Walker is a very human film that is both raw and endearing. It will tug at your heartstrings and quickly pull you into their struggle. You will probably find yourself crying at the end. This movie’s story is rather simple, yet compelling. It falls into the nebulous category of really good but vastly underrated and under-marketed films that is worthy of anyone’s time and attention. Since most of us will never set foot above the Arctic Circle, you will also develop an appreciation for this amazingly remote place and for a vast part of the earth that is mostly unseen.

3.3 on my four-point scale. This movie is much better than its premise would suggest.

For the price of a short commercial, you can watch the movie in its entirety on YouTube.

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