Originally published on Elements of Madness
Although the Fantasia International Film Festival was held virtually this year, it still featured an incredible lineup of wild and visceral films that celebrated everything gory and horrific. Many of the featured titles were loud and boastful with their colorful characters and wacky situations, offering a whirlwind of both dreamy and nightmarish images. On the other hand, some of the films were softer with their style, offering up slow-burning, tense narratives and minimalist imagery that hit with just as strong of an impact. Among this second category of films is the feature debut of director Jeanette Nordahl, Wildland. A tense hybrid of family drama and crime thriller, Wildland is captivating from start to finish, despite its more subdued style.
After losing her mother in a car accident, 17-year-old Ida (Sandra Guldberg Kampp) is sent to live with her aunt, Bodil (Sidse Babett Knudsen), whom she hasn’t seen since her early childhood. Ida’s mother had always kept a good distance from Bodil and her dangerous but comfortable lifestyle in the local mafia, and Ida is understandably wary about moving in. However, Bodil soon wins over her grieving niece with her nurturing, tender presence and generosity. Ida’s three adult cousins, Jonas (Joachim Fjelstrup), Mads (Besir Zeciri), and David (Elliott Crosset Hove) take Ida in like a little sister, allowing her to join in on their video games and nightly partying at the club. With Jonas’s wife and infant daughter around as well, Ida finds herself in a warm and loving family environment that is sure to heal the emotional wounds from her tragic loss. However, as the family makes their money from crime and intimidation, they cannot uphold their peaceful, casual lifestyle for long. Recognizing a cycle of life and violent death in her unconventional family, Ida grapples with questions of loyalty and wonders if the warmth and love that first greeted her after her mother’s death was only surface level.
Wildland progresses at a slower pace than the typical Hollywood mafia movie. Rather than creating a landscape in which gunshots, blood, and violence are the norm, Wildland builds up to moments of violence that burst forth and create shock. This perspective on violence highlights Ida’s perspective as a newcomer to the family’s criminal way of life, intensifying her fear as she tries to fit in and hopes that she won’t have to relive the trauma that took her mother away. In this way, Wildland takes a different direction with the familiar mafia-family scenario by offering the perspective of a child who has lost a parent in a violent manner and now must watch and participate in violence against strangers with whom she has no personal conflict. By opening with Ida’s loss, writer Ingeborg Topsøe situates Ida’s grief against a criminal family’s sense of duty and loyalty. While her extended family takes her in with open arms, even letting her accompany the boys when they’re “on the job,” their microaggressions against Ida make her wonder if she owes them any loyalty at all.
The tension among Wildland’s characters is anything but surface level, and the conflict is developed in such a subtle manner that the film can be appreciated on several different levels. Wildland is vague about certain details of Ida’s backstory, keeping us at a distance from the characters as if they are guests on a tv crime series who we don’t really need to know everything about. And yet, while we may not know all the specifics, and while none of the characters talk very much, it doesn’t take long for us to connect with those characters, especially Ida. Although her character is quiet and slow to speak, Kampp endows every single line with as much telling information about Ida as possible. With a slight raise of her eyebrows, tilt of her head, or half smile, Kampp makes Ida’s loneliness, grief, and confusion quite palpable. At certain pivotal moments in the film, Kampp is also successful in surprising us with Ida’s strength, bringing forth bottled-up emotions in a manner so delicate and controlled that it is difficult not to sympathize with her.
Ida isn’t the only quiet character in Wildland, which is not a very talkative film overall. In fact, the film contains several moments of complete silence without even a score to ease the tension. Nordahl makes the most of this silence, however, building suspense with shots that linger over closed doors and empty hallways after all the characters have walked out of frame. In one particularly powerful scene in which Jonas walks in on Ida to question her while she is in the bathtub, he stands completely silent in the doorway with a sickening, numb expression on his face as his cousin repeatedly asks him to leave, creating horrific tension with his silence. Nordahl also frequently employs short flashbacks to previous scenes that are filmed from a different character’s perspective, giving a voice to some of the film’s very silent characters. When the characters do speak, they don’t use particularly complicated or witty dialogue, but each line is specific and meaningful. When Bodil raises her voice at Ida for the first time, for example, she breaks her calm, motherly presence with frightening accusations that are perfectly timed with the film’s rising tensions. When Mads asks Ida a short yet wildly inappropriate question, the connotations of his brief dialogue color the interactions between the two characters for the rest of the film. Wildland succeeds in creating tension and discomfort with its dialogue, making the lives of its characters feel very real.
While the film’s subject matter is heavy and depressing, Wildland is slow-burning, quiet, and refreshing, proving that the smallest details of storytelling are often the most impactful. With a cyclical narrative, Wildland feels like one giant but slow deep breath. Filled with strong performances and realistic tension, Wildland offers a meticulous study on grief that questions the value of loyalty in an intriguing, thoughtful manner.
Final Grade: A
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