It’s not uncommon to see performances in film described with an overemphasis on primacy. That’s what the Internet hype machine is for, of course: embellishing reality. See Eddie Redmayne as you’ve never seen him before in The Danish Girl. See Richard Gere as you’ve never seen him before in The Benefactor. (See Jason Statham as you’ve never seen him before in whatever the hell this is.) So it goes. In Anders Thomas Jensen’s Men & Chicken, we theoretically get to see the great Dane Mads Mikkelsen as we’ve never seen him before, though this assumes we’ve never seen him do comedy, which is as possible as it is probable.
But before Mikkelsen lectured us on the finer points of clay roasting, before he tortured James Bond, before he knocked off Gestapo agents, and before he joined a group of Crusaders on an ill-advised quest to find the Holy Land, he starred in minor comedies like Adam’s Apples and Flickering Lights, a pair of movies that, by chance, were also directed by Jensen. So Men & Chicken brings director and star full circle, treading comic grounds they’ve traversed together in years past. The film isn’t new for them, but it’s probably new for many of Mikkelsen’s latter day fans, and besides: Its restrained weirdness and dolorous tone make an unexpectedly potent stage for courting laughs.
Those laughs are the kind that are liable to catch in a person’s throat. Men & Chicken isn’t quite anti-comedy, à la Entertainment, and you won’t feel bad for allowing yourself to chuckle or giggle or guffaw at the film’s uneasy punchlines. You will, however, feel an urgent need to take a shower when it’s all over. The film tends toward the visceral on an interior rather than surface basis more often than not, and that’s a mercy: Jensen’s gut-level disquietudes are effectively nauseating without being made literal by his lens. This is a case where what is implied is often more disturbing than what is actually seen, and where we howl through our discomfort.
Men & Chicken is about Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mikkelsen), a sibling duo who discover, after the death of their elderly father, that they are adopted. Shocking. More shocking still: They have the same dad, but different mothers. Gabriel determines to seek out their sire, a geneticist who dedicated his career to stem cell research, and begrudgingly brings along the unruly and forcible Elias. Their journey takes them to a sparsely populated island forgotten by time, whereupon they find that they have three half brothers—Josef (Nicolas Bro), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and Franz (Søren Malling)—who share dominion of the crumbling manse they call home with free-range livestock. They favor beatings as a response to uninvited guests and personal disputes alike. To call them uncivilized would be an understatement.
After Men & Chicken makes its rowdy family reunion, the film turns into an existential tragedy marked by gallows humor. Gabriel’s interest lies in answering the question of his ancestry. Elias just wants to get his rocks off and bond with his newfound kinsmen, though not necessarily in that order. All the while the mystery of their joint parentage dangles before us as low-hanging genealogical fruit, but that’s fine: Jensen makes no attempt at disguising the secret behind the quintet’s true pedigree. There’s no need to. He either trusts his viewers to figure it out, more or less, on their own, or he’s fixated on the film’s comical qualities. This isn’t The Island of Doctor Moreau. It’s barely even Psycho.
It is, however, achingly sad. There is a merry, revolting spirit at play here, but that spirit is trumped by Jensen’s tale of fractured heritage. It helps that he writes his characters with clarity and figures out ways to humanize them, which is no small feat given that humanity has passed the brothers like ships in the night. Men & Chicken might put our gag reflexes to the test, but it’s a forlorn family drama first and a gross-out flick second. In both modes it’s hilarious, or at least it will be to anyone with a taste for cringe comedy, but come on: The sight of five grown men snuggled up together reading textbooks about mass extinction as bedtime stories is inherently amusing, if only because it’s so willfully bizarre. The film’s message of familial unity rings clear even through its outre visual elements. Family sticks together, especially when everyone in that family shares the same harelip.
At the center of Men & Chicken’s domestic gloom and squirm-inducing indelicacy stands Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen is a veteran screen talent long past the point of having to prove himself, and yet his performance as Elias is damn near revelatory all the same. Elias is the glue that holds the film’s wistfulness and crassness together, a stubborn boor whose obstinacy is surpassed only by his love for Gabriel. Mikkelsen captures the man’s coarse, goofy soul perfectly, but his natural command as an actor gives his performance an authoritative underpinning. Funny business is nothing new to Mikkelsen, but his work in Men & Chicken feels new all the same. It’s enough to make you buy into the hyperbole: Maybe we really haven’t seem him like this.
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen
Writer: Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, David Dencik, Søren Malling, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro
Release Date: April 22, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.