Men & Chicken
Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen
Opens April 22
At the beginning of Men & Chicken, a ramshackle Danish comedy about the hard luck of heredity, two bachelors approaching middle age learn their recently deceased dad wasn’t their biological father after all—and that they’re only half brothers to boot. The real early shock for the viewer, though, is in the casting: Erstwhile Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen plays chronic masturbator Elias, the actor’s sharp features softened by a mop of curly hair and a thick mustache, his full-throated voice pared to a stilted blurt.
Mikkelsen looks like he’s having fun here, so it scarcely matters how “convincing” he is as an extravagantly maladapted individual (for what it’s worth, the act never quite ceases to seem like a put-on). He also has the luxury of playing against a capable straight man. Swedish actor David Dencik, of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, co-stars as Elias’s better-adjusted philosophy-professor sibling Gabriel, a guy who can’t quite bring himself to disown his liability of a brother. Not long after learning of their true paternity, the two travel together out to the remote Danish island of Ork in search of their birth father: a shrouded-in-mystery stem-cell scientist with the ominous last name of Thanatos.
Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (who won a short-film Oscar back in 1999) endows the slapstick with a wry sense of fatalism—the handheld camera rarely rests during Men & Chicken, but the film still manages to evoke, in its more grotesquely fanciful moments, the jaundiced entropy of a Roy Andersson tableau. What Gabriel and Elias find, at a crumbling sanatorium at the heart of the island, is not the scientist himself (he’s nowhere to be seen, and neither are any of his many wives) but rather three more half brothers scampering around the grounds. Gregor, Franz, and Josef (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Søren Malling, and Nicolas Bro, respectively) have all grown up in isolation and are thus even less cultivated than the self-deluded cock of the walk Elias.
As Jensen sets up what amounts to a speculative sociological experiment—investigating nature in the absence of nurture—he dabbles as well in a kind of Podunk science fiction. The two out-of-towners come to blows with their long-lost brethren upon arrival, but wind up bunking with them as they recuperate from their injuries. Mutant farm animals graze around the makeshift home. Meanwhile, Gabriel decides to rummage around the premises, strewn with science-experiment detritus, for family secrets.
Men & Chicken might require a relatively high tolerance for zaniness, but it’s nonetheless an undeniably clever piece of work. Jensen burlesques the full-on Neanderthal aspects of masculine posturing, while at the same time showing the ways inherited traits die hard. The spawn of Thanatos are all sterile and therefore totally preoccupied with improvising ways to prove their virility—they pummel each other with taxidermied trophy animals and have sex with their own chickens and talk aspirationally about “getting girls” to pay them a visit. This clan might have as little hope of social success as it does of simple continuance, but in many respects it’s a family all the same. Veering away from the cruelly deterministic, the film ends on a note of warped humanism: At the end of the day, at least these people have each other.