The Danes are a funny bunch – just ask their dear neighbours in Sweden who find even the accent too much to bear without a smirk. That doesn’t mean there’s not a twinge of creative jealousy mixed in as well. Denmark is on a roll at the moment. From hit TV (The Killing and Borgen) to westerns (The Salvation), political thrillers (A Hijacking), sharp social drama (In A Better World and The Hunt) and whatever inspired lunacy Lars von Trier happens to be working on, they’ve established a high quality cottage industry. To that list you can now add fairy-tale comedy/horror in the shape of Men & Chicken, a film that delights in repugnant laughs and crude violence before giving way to a gentler message.
One thing that seems to unite Scandinavian film is an obsession with dysfunctional families. Anders Thomas Jensen, maker of black comedies par excellence (and co-writer of many Danish hits including The Salvation), gives us an extreme example here as two odd brothers receive a deathbed revelation from their father. With doubts cast on their heritage, Gabriel (David Dencik), an academic with an unfortunate gag reflex, and Elias (a barely recognisable Mads Mikkelsen) whose childish tantrums and raging libido cause problems for everyone, travel to a remote Danish island to find this mysterious family.
If they seem odd, and they do, it’s nothing compared to the trio of half-brothers holed up in an old psychiatric sanatorium, converted in only the vaguest of ways to a residential property by their ailing geneticist father. Franz (Søren Malling), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Josef (Nicholas Bro) are pathologically violent, dangerously co-dependent and horribly lonely. They will attack with all manner of weaponry, including planks of wood, giant cast iron pots and even mounted birds. Gabriel and Elias experience all three when they first arrive.Jensen and his fine cast, all playing out of their skins, aim for laughs, usually with good results. Running gags such as Elias’ roll of toilet paper and sexual braggadocio sit alongside slapstick fighting, a trip to the local old people’s home to pick up women, and circular arguments over who gets to use the coveted dog plate during dinner. At one stage, Franz tries to win back his old job in the island nursery – a job he lost after hitting a child with a stuffed fox. Elias concludes that it’s partly the fault of the nursery for leaving the fox so openly on display.
It’s all mild eccentricity compared to what’s coming. Jensen warms up by revealing the use of the many chickens that live inside their property, before sending a flood of disgusting revelations. No judgement is cast; it’s not that kind of film. As repulsive a lifestyle as they all live, with the exception of the upstanding Gabriel who wants to escape his genetic fate, Men & Chicken doesn’t look down on its characters. Jensen’s world is as it is, and the dysfunctional siblings, so long ignored by local authorities, make do the best they can.
By this stage, you’d be forgiven for assuming the shenanigans are only going to get more disturbing. But underneath black-hearted posturing, there’s a rather sweet core. Gabriel wants to get his faltering life back on track while the other four desperately seek a way out of the squalor their father mired them in. Frans Bak and Jeppe Kaas’ floating score helps to build towards a conclusion full of acceptance and belonging, and short of the scurrilous energy that powers the rest of the story.
This does lead to a noticeable loss of momentum. Who needs a warm feeling of togetherness when you can have grown men shoving wheels of cheese up their shirts, beating up siblings with ornaments and locking each other in cages for minor infringements? It shouldn’t work but it does. As competent as the final act is, Jensen achieves the best results when he lets loose. Normality ruins this. Luckily there’s not much on display.