Wild Men (Vildmænd)

Denmark (2021) Dir. Thomas Daneskov

Getting away from the hustle and bustle of daily life is something we all dream of, with many achieving this by jetting off for two weeks in sunnier climes. Others become so run down, they literally have go off grid and go back to nature to avoid phone calls and gas balls in order to reclaim their sanity. Does it actually work though?

Danish Martin (Rasmus Bjerg) has had enough of the 9 to 5 lifestyle, and having told his wife Anne (Sofie Gråbøl) that he was going on a work team building course, he instead flees to the mountains of Norway where he has set up camp. Martin may have his mobile phone, but not his wallet; fortunately, his Viking attire and handmade axe is imposing enough for convenience store clerks to forego payment for their own safety.

Meanwhile, a group of drug smugglers heading back to the ferry to Denmark crash their car, leaving only Musa (Zaki Youssef) alive. He takes the money and tries to make it to the ferry, but seeing the police in the area, hides in the forest. He meets Martin who patches up his wound then saves Musa from the police. Both now fugitives, they head off to find a village full of Viking folk, unaware that Musa’s colleagues are alive after all and think Musa has done the dirty on them.

Pitched a satirical absurdist comedy, Wild Men begins as such, but slowly morphs into a dark drama with a grisly conclusion that feels disconnected from the occasional silliness that preceded it. Director and co-writer Thomas Daneskov taps into the rich vein of droll Scandi humour to match the gloomy aesthetic of the wintry rural setting (which isn’t as far from civilisation as we are lead to believe), for a dry but often witty tale of a mid life crisis gone wrong.

Then again, I don’t suppose there is such a thing as a “right” mid life crisis but that isn’t really the point. If Daneskov is trying to advocate the move from suburban comfort to living off the and then this doesn’t come across here; not that the idyllic splendour of the Norwegian countryside isn’t a tempting enough vista to wake up to every morning, but like Martin, many of us have responsibilities, as suffocating as they may be.

Our first meeting with Martin sees him in situ among the verdant forestry and glistening rivers, with the wildlife unwittingly providing his dinner. The problem is his hunting skills are below par, forcing him to sally forth to the local village convenience store to stock up his pantry. The store clerk is rightfully bemused at this anachronistic pelt clad chap filling his trolley with snacks and drinks, but not so distracted he can’t refuse service without payment.

Apparently believing his IS a Viking, Martin tries to barter by offering his furs and his axe until he can get his credit card, bringing out the manager to back up the clerk. A scuffle ensues and Martin escapes with some goodies, but now the police (all three of them), led by senior officer Øyvind (Bjørn Sundquist), are on the hunt for a pilfering Viking. In all fairness, Martin is a hefty chap and is has the spiel and attitude down pat making this convincing enough not to be joke.

Something I haven’t yet mentioned is that Martin is only ten days into his new lifestyle, implying he has either taking to it like a duck to water, or the breakdown he was running away from was more severe than we thought. Thankfully, the script doesn’t paint Martin as a loony, in case this is a cautionary tale about mental health, the closest coming when Anne finally finds him and refuses to accept his mad ramblings about a divorce.

Before this happens however, there is the odd couple road trip of sorts involving Martin and Musa, the injured drug smuggler trying to get home. Maybe for expedience, they seem to hit it off almost immediately with Musa asking few questions about Martin or his lifestyle choice; Musa doesn’t even lose it with Martin when his Viking instincts let them down and leave them without food.

However, they have bigger issues to worry about when it transpires Musa’s colleagues Simon (Marco Ilso) and Eigil (Tommy Karlsen) are still alive and after the money they think he stole from them – and these guys are dangerous. One might question the necessity of this subplot given the violence and bleakness it brings to the film, but it can’t be denied the convergence of this with Martin’s journey is smoothly executed.

Whilst the humour oscillates between subtle and obvious, it is very well observed and never cruel. The peak may be the Viking village Martin and Musa reach where Martin feels at home – until he realises it is a costumed theme village. The revealing scene is great, one of the funniest in my view, as is the verbal exchange about authenticity that follows; the pot calls the kettle black but only one of them knows he is playing a role which makes it funnier.

Rasmus Bjerg is a great physical fit for Martin, yet plays him with an underlying pathos as a man having convinced himself he has escaped the shackles of modern life to honour his ancestors but is just as ill equipped here too. Bjørn Sundquist as aging policeman Øyvind is the best of the foils for Martin due to his life experiences, whilst Sofie Gråbøl, likely the only recognisable face for many of us, is sadly underused with four scenes to her name, but still enjoyable in them.

Unable to maintain a consistent tone and lacking bite to be a truly cutting satire, Wild Men is a film with partial resonance, depending on viewer’s tastes – you will either get it or simply enjoy the ride. However, its hugely entertaining and witty, keeping us invested to the end.