“Are you sure you want to keep it?”, 17-year-old Ida (Sandra Guldberg Kampp) asks Anna (Carla Philip Røder), the pregnant girlfriend of her cousin David (Elliott Crosset Hove), in Jeanette Nordahl’s feature debut Wildland. “Maybe he doesn’t even want to be a dad.”
It is a peculiarly inappropriate thing to ask a young, excitedly expectant mother, as Anna acknowledges in her response: “Why wouldn’t I want to keep it? What’s wrong?” Yet Ida is unusually well-placed to understand the trap of family. It is not just that her own addict mother Hanne (Maria Esther Lemvigh) was recently killed in a car accident from which Ida herself is still bearing scars both physical and psychological, but also that the close-knit clan of her estranged aunt Bodil (Sidse Babett Knudsen) into which Ida has now been adopted offers a home environment in which no child should be raised.
Bodil is a loving mother, welcoming to Ida and indulgent of her three sons. The eldest Jonas (Joachim Fjelstrup) lives in another house with his wife Marie (Sofie Torp) and infant daughter Maya, but is always coming over. David, the middle son and black sheep of the family, comes and goes as he pleases. The youngest, Mads (Besir Zeciri), still very much lives at home, playing first-person shooters when he is not working out in the basement gym. When Bodil first brings Ida home, we see that Bodil is very permissive about Mads’ dope smoking – and indeed this is a house where the boys are allowed to go out to play all night in bars and clubs, and even underage Ida is allowed to join them. Yet we also notice that Mads’ fist is bloody – it struck a window, he claims – and that he hands over an envelope of cash to his mother. For Bodil’s sons are all working for her, and their actvities – chiefly debt collection – are not legal. As Ida is brought into the family, she is also made a part of its business, and comes to realise, as both her own mother and David had long since grasped, that once you have entered sweet, affectionate Bodil’s embrace, it is practically impossible to escape undamaged.
Apart from a single scene that shows Ida running through woods, it is hard to know to what the film’s English title refers. Much more meaningful is the original Danish title, Kød og blod, literally ‘flesh and blood’, in a family saga where the ties that bind also constrict, and where blood is thicker than water. Focalised through Ida’s point of view, the film keeps Bodil and sons’ criminal enterprises to the margins of, if not entirely off, screen, not so much because Ida is unaware of them as because, in her desperation for a place to belong, she chooses to overlook them and keep them at a distance – until it is too late, and their bloody proximity can no longer be denied. This attempted denial is a key part of Ida’s inner conflict, as she struggles, impossibly, to prove herself a beloved part of the very family that she also knows is poisonous and longs to leave.
Consequently Wildland is a film of considerable restraint, where occasional flashes of violence, always unfocused, have a much greater impact on the viewer than they ever would have if they had played out more in the foreground (one wince-inducing scene near the end is all the more shocking for its decentered understatement). This is Denmark’s answer to David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010) – a probing, sometimes tense portrait of a dysfunctional household in thrall to a tough, toxic matriarch determined to keep the bloodline going while controlling every aspect of its flow. Part of what makes this so effective is the way that Knudsen plays up Bodil’s maternal devotion, while playing down her viciousness – yet by the end you can see why her character might make any woman in her orbit think twice about becoming a mother.
© Anton Bitel