A car, wrecked and upside down on a strip of concrete, opens Jeanette Nordahl’s Wildland — no movements or signs of life evident as smoke drifts gently into the sky. There is no depiction of the crash, just the aftermath of violence, a theme that continues throughout the punchy crime-thriller.
After Ida (Sandra Guldberg Kampp) is injured and her mother killed in the afore-mentioned crash, she is sent to live with her aunt Bodil (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her three sons, with whom she’s had little-to-no contact in her seventeen years. The family is extremely close-knit, dependent on a culture of obedience and loyalty in order to keep their criminal activities under the radar from authorities. Quickly adopted into the family, Ida begins to join her cousins in these various tasks, sitting in the back of the car and watching as they drive around collecting debts.
In many ways, Wildland does read like a stereotypical ‘mob’ drama: there are brothers at odds with each other and Bodil sports a wardrobe straight out of The Sopranos, with more gold and garish silk shirts that you can shake a stick at. What sets this film far apart from this lineage, though, is the way that it is constructed from a wholly feminine perspective.
Bodil runs the family with a loving but iron-clad grip, as Knudsen switches effortlessly between tenderness and rage, able to manipulate Ida and her sons into acting against their own interests. Her power is a subtle one, only truly glimpsed by family outsiders such as Anna (Carla Philip Røder), the girlfriend of David, the most volatile son with a considerate drug problem. Her instinctive dislike of Anna is not based on any personal defect, but because Anna presents a danger to her and the world she has created — the potential to lead David away from his family. For Bodil and the rest of the family, the biggest betrayal lies in doing anything that may risk separation of the unit; they put themselves before all others, even if it’s to the detriment of Ida and her own future.
It’s Ida that carries the film, and Guldberg Kampp’s performance is one of quiet observation; her voiceovers in opening and closing the film are perhaps the most we hear her speak in one go. Instead, she watches carefully — easily adopting the behavior and patterns of her older cousins as she seeks to establish herself into the family business. There is a continual sense that Ida is never fully at ease with either herself or the rest of the family. She does not share in their impassioned outbursts but deals with her own grief and emotions introspectively. Guldberg Kampp ensures that Ida is never boring or passive, imbuing her with just enough steely determination to keep her own interests in mind even when it seems impossible.
Violence constantly lurks under the surface of Wildland, the threat unseen but ever-present. The sharp set of a jaw during a supposedly playful fight, a close-up of flexing muscles, fists hitting a punching bag and then dancing to a heavy electronic beat — the rhythm of movement similar enough to reassure us that this will not descend into chaos. And then, inevitably, it does, with a climactic final twenty minutes that has the gut-wrenching effect of being hit by a car.
Wildland is a crime thriller that manages to maintain a constant sense of dread, while also infusing moments of humor that provide a welcome relief in the face of such relenting tension. Nordahl’s debut is an unexpectedly fresh take on the well-worn genre, with performances that are tender — making its final scene almost unbearably sad.