Weir makes the story linear and grueling, eschewing the subplots that moviegoers are conditioned to expect from quest narratives. There are no romances, few feuds, and fewer detours. Mostly, it’s just seven men — and then six, and then five, as nature and circumstances take their toll — against the wilderness, with every secondary issue burned away by the fires of necessity.
Every secondary issue, that is, save one: the politics of the Soviet Union and the horrors of Communism, which Weir clearly feels duty-bound to keep emphasizing long after the gulag has become a distant memory for his travelers. To this end, the movie introduces a female runaway, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), whose chatty presence persuades the men to unburden themselves of their experiences with Stalin’s tyranny. From Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), a former priest, we hear about the persecution of Christians. From Harris’s American we hear about the betrayal of Stalinism’s American admirers. From Irena herself, whose parents were Polish Communists, we hear about how the revolution eats its own. And from Valka, who has Stalin and Lenin tattooed together on his chest, we’re reminded how the Soviet dictators could command loyalty even from subjects who had every reason to despise them.