What happens when you want to go back to nature, only to find that nature is not at all welcoming? If you’re the midlife-crisis-beset Martin (Rasmus Bjerg), the hangdog protagonist of “Wild Men,” you might figure that after 10 days of trying to rough it in the wild as a landlocked Viking, it would be a good time to trek out of the Norwegian woods and seek snacks, beer, smokes and other necessities at a roadside service station minimart.
Trouble is, as we see during the opening minutes of Thomas Daneskov’s gently absurdist comedy, although Martin did remember to tuck his iPhone in his animal-skin garb before fleeing the constraints of civilization, he neglected to bring along any money. And the understandably discombobulated clerk behind the counter isn’t willing to barter when Martin offers pelts, and an axe, as payment for his items. One thing leads to another, Martin inadvertently becomes a fugitive criminal — and a sixtysomething local cop named Øyvind (Bjørn Sundquist) eventually arrives on the scene to order a couple hog dogs and ask the clerk the obvious question: “What business does a Danish Viking have here?”
The wonderful thing about “Wild Men,” a movie that suggests a dream-team collaboration of Hal Hartley and the Coen Brothers, is that everyone involved takes themselves extremely seriously, even as they behave and speak in ways that cause viewers who get the joke to smile, chuckle and occasionally laugh out loud. Director Daneskov and co-writer Morten Pape refrain from ever pushing too hard, and their players are perfectly attuned to their sly restraint.
As he soldiers on in his faux mountain man garb and waxes enthusiastic about the joys of getting back to basics — after trying, and failing, to lift his spirits with such commonplace endeavors as hiking and ironman races — Bjerg’s Martin looks and sounds more than a little ridiculous, but behaves as though his is a perfectly rational (albeit a tad extreme) approach to reaffirming his masculinity. He really doesn’t mean any harm to anyone — not to any minimart clerks, of course, and certainly not to his long-suffering wife, Anne (Sofie Gråbøl), whom he left behind with their two young daughters while pretending to be attending a “teambuilding seminar.” And his guileless naiveté, splendidly conveyed by Bjerg, goes a long way toward maintaining our rooting interest in his misguided and undeniably self-centered search for “adventure.”
Fortuitously for both men, Martin picks up a traveling companion during his wayward journey in the wild: Musa (Zaki Youssef), a drug smuggler injured after hitting an elk with his car, a mishap that he assumes killed two partners in crime (and, not incidentally, left him with a satchel stuffed with loot). Martin patches up Musa — who doesn’t seriously question the Viking proclivities of his new-found benefactor — and manages to wield his bow and arrow just impressively enough to subdue two police officers who, truth to tell, are a lot more interested in running down a drug smuggler than capturing a convenience store robber. The guys bond as, despite Øyvind’s best efforts at a hot pursuit, they make their way to what Martin hopes is an enclave of like-minded folks who live off the land and swear by the Viking lifestyle.
Unfortunately, that enclave turns out to be little more than a gathering of cosplayers, where food and trinkets can be charged on credit cards. Even more unfortunately, the aforementioned partners in crime thought to be dead, aren’t.
There are three or four parallel storylines that sporadically interconnect throughout “Wild Men,” but that still leaves Daneskov and Pape more than enough room to drop into the mix a pleasing amount of throwaway funny business, like repeated references to a police dog who always seems to be on vacation “doing dog things” or a husband’s choice of the worst possible time to disprove his wife’s claims that he “lacks altruism.” The resolution to the various manhunts is jarringly though not unexpectedly harsh — but even here, a sense of restraint is maintained. And to top it all off, one of the final images is an affectingly melancholy reference to, of all things, Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” That, too, is likely to make you smile.