Danish writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen came up on the heels of the Dogme 95 movement, whose “vow of chastity” was equal parts a call for the eschewing of special effects and technology and a big “Hey, look at me!” bolster for the Danish film industry. Jensen has been writing scripts consistently over the years, and his frequent collaborations with director Susanne Bier have borne some indelible fruit (After the Wedding, the Oscar-winning In a Better World). But of his own films, Jensen has been more sporadic. He has returned after a 10-year directing hiatus with Men & Chicken, a dysfunctional-family comedy combining elements of so many genres and themes that together, on paper, you’d think the film was a dare by fellow countryman Lars von Trier (see The Five Obstructions). But in Jensen’s extremely capable hands, everything (mostly) works.
Gabriel (Dencik) is a philosophy professor whose dead father has one last secret to share with him and his estranged brother Elias (Mikkelsen, amazing here, and forever my screen crush). In a hilariously awkward deathbed videotape, their father reveals that he is not actually their father, and that Gabriel and Elias were adopted, sharing the same father, but different mothers. Their real father is Evelio Thanatos, a reclusive scientist living on the sparsely populated island of Ork. Gabriel and Elias travel to the island to find a dilapidated former sanitarium housing three more half-brothers, Franz (Malling), Gregor (Kaas), and Josef (Bro), along with a menagerie of geese, rabbits, turkeys, and of course, chickens. Gabriel and Elias fall in with their brethren, a trio of emotionally stunted brothers who behave like backwoods 5-year-olds, oblivious to the outside world.
Combining elements of slapstick, horror, and psychodrama (not to mention Darwinism, bestiality, and harelips), Men & Chicken is a film – nay, a world – into which you just dive, and unlike most of the stuff out there, from one moment to the next, you have no idea what is going to happen. It is a black comedy that nimbly switches tones so often it can feel like whiplash. These things are all to its benefit, my only critique being the sentimental, fairy-tale bookends that frame the narrative. Still, if you are looking for something completely different, something strange, smart, and vulgar, Jensen’s film more than qualifies.
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