Comparisons to filmmaker David Michôd’s Australian crime thriller Animal Kingdom are inevitable when discussing Danish director Jeanette Nordahl’s debut feature. Both films feature a matriarch with a powerful, manipulative grip over her crime syndicate family and both films explore how the familial empire ultimately crumbles.
Screenwriter Ingeborg Topsøe wisely alters the central POV from a male to a female protagonist. In Wildland it is 17-year-old Ida (Sandra Guldberg Kampp), who is sent to live with her aunt Bodil (Sidse Babett Knudsen) after her mother is killed from complications of a car accident. The film opens in the immediate aftermath of the crash, as Ida watches her mother succumb to injuries in the hospital, then jumps ahead to Ida’s meeting with case worker Omar (Omar Shargawi) as he outlines Ida’s new living situation.
The film has an underlying sense of tension and unease from the jump; it’s clear that Ida doesn’t have a strong (or recent) relationship with Bodil or her three adult sons. In fact the first half of Wildland chronicles how Ida awkwardly fits into the new family dynamic, which includes Bodil’s oldest Jonas (Joachim Fjelstrup), troubled middle son David (Elliott Crosset Hove) and youngest son Mads (Besir Zeciri).
When Ida first enters her Aunt’s low-key, suburban home, it’s with a sense of trepidation and uncertainty. It’s as though she’s an interloper. That feeling persists throughout the first half of the film, even when Bodil and the men begin inviting Ida to accompany them on their day to day activities. In short time it becomes clear where the tension is coming from: the family’s business is criminal and their work involves visiting the nightclub that Bodil runs, or beating up and threatening people who owe them money.
Topsøe’s script never pauses to deliver exposition about the nature of the business, or even clarifies how powerful they are. The insinuation is clear, however: the business is family-run and its members are deeply protective of each other which, by virtue of its structure, means they are (potentially) violent to everyone else.
Wildland is dedicated to exploring whether or not that includes Ida, particularly as the teen slowly becomes more and more immersed in their dangerous world. One reason the film is effective, however, is due to how mundane the whole enterprise is. The boys are not criminal masterminds, there is no heist, and Bodil doesn’t live in a mansion; in fact their lives and the house are completely pedestrian and average. At one point, Ida catches the eye of an elderly neighbour taking out the trash on the suburban street and it’s a great moment of comedy because it is such a banal encounter. There’s an insinuation that everyone knows Bodil’s business, but the criminal activity is embedded in the world of the ho-hum everyday.
Throughout it all, Ida is the audience surrogate. It’s a significant role for Guldberg Kampp, who appears in nearly every scene and tends to visually dominate the screen. Nordahl regularly frames the actress in straight-on close-up and while the character is relatively stone-faced and expressionless, as the film progresses and the danger incrementally rises, there’s an undercurrent of panic and fear in Guldberg Kampp’s eyes. The actress only has a few scenes of heightened emotionality, which means that so much of her performance is conveyed in small glances, silent modes and minor facial expressions.
Each of the three sons are distinct characters, although the characterizations are shallow since the film is primarily interested in Ida.
Jonas is the responsible one: not only does he have a wife, Marie (Sofie Torp) and six month old baby, he never gets his hands dirty on the job (he only drives). In some ways this makes him more threatening than the other two brothers. Jonas has a quiet intensity that connotes violence and he isn’t afraid to smack David around to keep him in line.
The calm that makes Jonas scary is in stark contrast to Hans, the youngest son, who is immediately coded as a bit of an idiot and a definite slacker. His introduction in the film finds him barely able to make eye contact with Ida because he’s too busy playing video games. Later he asks her if she’ll show him her breasts in exchange for showing her his penis, and when she declines, he pleads with her not to mention it to his mother. Despite the body of a man, Hans has the intellect of a stunted boy.
And then there is David, the troubled middle son. It’s clear via dialogue and the way Bodil acts towards him that David is the black sheep of the family: he’s prone to drug abuse and running off unexpectedly, and he’s seen partying with a girlfriend, Anna (Carla Philip Røder) that Bodil doesn’t approve of.
The way that each son behaves – both around the mother and out from under her watchful eye – forms the crux of the film. Wildland is fascinated by the overly protective, infantilized relationship between the matriarch and her sons. There’s a moment of violence near the midpoint of the film involving David and Ida and the way that Bodil reacts to it, and the aftermath of it, is very telling.
As the “family first” leader of a small crime empire, Babett Knudsen is great (unsurprising to fans of Borgen). She’s doing a play on a typical mob wife with her heels and silk shirts, but the truly unnerving component of the character are the incestuous undertones. Bodil not only protects and prioritizes her boys; she strokes their hair, touches their faces, and kisses them full on the mouth. Even allowing for the increased level of intimacy that is condoned in Europe, it is evident from Bodil’s interactions with her adult sons that the relationship is unhealthy.
It’s also the most fascinating part of the film. One wishes Wildland was longer than it’s 88 minute runtime so that exchanges could breathe and characters were made to sit with things longer, but overall this is an engrossing character study. Some audiences will quibble that Bodil is the star attraction, as opposed to Ida, which is fair considering how engrossing Babett Knudsen is in an unconventional role.
The ending is particularly provocative. Following a minor jump forward in time, the film resets the relationships to highlight which characters are still under Bodil’s – and by proxy, the family’s – thumb. Others, meanwhile, have found an escape of sorts…but at what cost? Wildland doesn’t offer any easy answers and the murkiness, and the morality, is where its power lies. 3/5
Wildland is now available in virtual cinemas in select cities