Being a man sucks and this is why the patriarchy needs to go. Society, at least in America, subscribes to the idea that being a man requires a certain toughness, a rigidity, an emotional distance from things happening around them. They need to be able to fight, to fix, to take care of all the ones who need to be taken care of, no matter the emotional or physical toll they themselves endure. A study conducted by Katelyn M. Sileo and Trace S. Kershaw in 2020 suggests that while a greater number of women are reported to suffer from depression, the numbers among men might be underestimated as men are less likely to go seek treatment. According to the study, “[m]en of younger age, men of color, and those with lower socioeconomic status are even less likely to seek mental health services and receive treatment when needed …”. This, of course, isn’t to imply that there are genders and classes who have it worse. It’s merely to point out that, again, at least in America, there’s a presumption of what makes a “man” and any behavior outside of that is weak. It’s easy then for anyone raised with these ideals to find themselves questioning everything about themselves when they can’t do simple things like help out around the house, care for their kids, or do their income-creating jobs. The crossroads of mental health and personal responsibility is where director/co-writer Thomas Daneskov’s Wild Men (Vildmænd) finds its concept and emotional center.
Living among the wild, dressed in furs and hunting for food is Martin (Rasmus Bjerg), a man trying to find himself through natural living. While on a hunt, he comes across a bleeding unconscious man, Musa (Zaki Youssef), whom he helps mend and get on their feet. Musa asks Martin for help getting to his destination and Martin agrees, the two forming a sweet bond of friendship under strange circumstances. What Musa doesn’t realize is that Martin is actually hiding in the woods from his wife and kids and recently got into a scuffle at a gas station convenience store while trying to acquire food and what Martin doesn’t realize is that Musa is an international drug runner whose recent return trip took a hilariously tragic turn. With both men trying to avoid the police in secret, the two inadvertently stumble into and out of one ridiculous situation after another under the guise of being men.
Up until the moment where Martin finds a candy bar wrapper laying on a river bed, Daneskov and co-writer Morten Pape’s Wild Men could easily be mistaken for a drama taking place in the Viking Era of the Middle Ages due to its focus on the wilderness and our introductory character’s full-bodied fur garb and handmade weaponry. Without a word spoken, we watch as Martin hunts for food, making due with his limited skills, and, largely, failing at surviving. Amid all this, what’s truly striking is our first look at Martin, not because of how he’s dressed or the lovely vista behind him, but that he’s been visibly crying. Something is wrong and we don’t know what it is. Even when the film reveals that Martin is choosing to live in the woods via the gas station kerfuffle, we still don’t know why. That part gets slowly revealed and, though it provides a great deal of comedy, what Daneskov and Pape are really exploring is toxic masculinity within the Danish community. Thanks to watching recent documentary Howl of the Underdogs (2022), the Norwegian term Janteloven is now in my lexicon and it speaks of the notion that no one should seek to excel or stand out as standing apart from the group implies that someone is somehow more special than another. Because of Janteloven, Norwegian people are less likely to share their feelings, their worries, their concerns, as they don’t want to appear a burden, opting to process all their feelings alone, even if it means burying them deep. Inferring from the dialogue in the film, the characters are somewhere close to the Denmark/Norway border, so it’s quite possible that Martin subscribes to this societal philosophy. Him crying in secret may be the only way he feels he can cry at all, though, the act of crying will also imply a weakness to him, a weakness he believes cannot share with the people in his life. Thus, his pain is an ouroboros, creating and destroying him at every turn.
In case the audience can’t pick up on this, Daneskov and Pape give audiences the police chief Øyvind (Bjørn Sundquist), who is beset first by trying to track down the drug runners and is mostly disinterested in the reported Viking in the woods (Martin) until Martin’s wife Anne (Sofie Gråbøl) comes to see him with their daughters. An older gentlemen, Øyvind has the kind of experience that creates a specific view of life, able to separate the gold from the bullshit. Through him, the audience is given a valuable lesson dispensed through his bittersweet stories: if you must lie to get the thing you want, you’re ultimately wasting your own time. Øyvind isn’t interested in adhering to Janteloven (if he ever followed it), he’s only interested in remembering those he loves and doing his job. He’s alone like Martin, but not by choice, a perspective that, when the two interact, shakes Martin out of his belligerence. Don’t mistake Sundquist’s slightly jovial performance and soft-spoken delivery for Øyvind to imply that he’s not commanding, as it’s this presentation that makes the character powerful: every one underestimates the aged lawman.
Like Sundquist, the respective performances of Bjerg and Youssef come with unexpected balance of humor and pathos. Both actors allow their characters to keep their secrets while their actions give way to the truth of who they are. Bjerg makes Martin’s shortcomings laughable as he confidently fucks up time and again, despite the often unfortunate consequences, highlighting how Martin would’ve been better off just talking instead of running away. Similarly, Youssef as Musa feels he can’t tell the truth of who he is because then Martin might not help him, which Youssef’s physical performance makes concrete for the audience. On the surface, both Martin and Musa are idiots stuck in a trap of their own making, yet Bjerg and Youssef give them dimensions so that the audience cares for how things turn out for them, especially when guns come out.
The totality of Wild Men is an exploration of mental health, using comedy and drama to highlight through enhanced situations that men need to learn to ask for help, that it’s ok to lean on people without feeling like a burden. More importantly, they need to be willing to do the work necessary to get their heads right. Being a man or, more accurately, a whole person, means being able to handle your shit responsibly, which means seeking help when you need it, and there’s nothing more “manly” than seeking guidance. Which one is worse: locking your partner out because you feel you can’t share your concerns and worries *or* finding a professional to give you the tools so that you can open up in a healthy way? The notion that it’s “unmanly” to have feelings, to have emotions, and to communicate those is a large part of what is destroying society as a whole. It’s what sends people into the woods, wearing fur and hunting like Vikings, because they feel like society has rejected them when, in fact, society rejected them ages ago and they are only just now realizing it. Daneskov and Pape’s Wild Men continually surprises in poignancy over and again, even amid the laughs and bloody violence.
Available on VOD and digital August 5th, 2022.
For more information, head to the Samuel Goldwyn Films Wild Men webpage.
If you feel like you could benefit from some assistance with your or someone you know’s mental health, here are some resources from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Leave a Reply