Scandinavian comedies are perhaps some of the strangest films you’ll ever see, but also magnetic in their charm and quick wit. Whether that would be Stellan Skarsgård as a snow-plow driver going on a killing spree, or a 100 year-old explosive expert escaping from a retirement home for his own adventures – these films often revolve around the weirdest and most absurd stories imaginable, enriched by a uniquely dark sense of humour.
No better director defines these traits than Anders Thomas Jensen. Mainly known as a screenwriter, Jensen often gives us bizarre make-overs on controversial topics. From cannibalistic butchers to a Neo-Nazi doing community service for a church, there is a certain something about Jensen’s body of work; both chaotic and unpleasant but oddly hilarious and hypnotic at the same time. In other words, you can’t simply turn your head away from the screen because of how surreal the humour and his worlds get. His latest film, Men and Chicken starring frequent collaborator, Mads Mikkelsen, follows the same path as his previous directorial efforts only this time out this freakish bar has been well and truly raised.
Elias (Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik) are two brothers who are informed by their father, on his deathbed, that they were adopted. Their real father is a geneticist who lives in a rural sanatorium on the island of Ork. They travel over to meet him only to discover that the sanatorium is decaying, farmland animals have overrun the place, and the pair also has three long lost half-brothers who also live there, Franz, Josef and Gregor (Søren Malling, Nicolas Bro and Nikolaj Lie Kaas). These three are barely civil, they break into fights in which they hit each other with everything from stuffed animals to giant wooden planks, and they have rules for everything such as who gets the plate with the dog on it. Gabriel and Elias stay at the sanatorium for a couple of days with their recently discovered bands of brothers, only to discover their own dark secret.
Each brother has their own unique traits, if you can call them that. Gabriel has the strongest shout for being the voice of reason; he is the only one who has some semblance of sanity left inside him. He tries to get the frantic brothers under control and order, but this proves a very difficult task. He gets put in wheelchair temporarily after being beaten to a pulp by one of the brothers, he is gagged for unspecified reasons turning his life into a living hell. Franz is a short tempered lunatic who is the one who still sticks to his father’s strict rules. There is a basement which access to be forbidden, and if he catches anyone down there, they get thrown into cages outside the sanatorium. Josef still has some intelligence left in him, but this is counterbalanced with his penchant to go on jogging sprees and his obsession with cheese. Whilst Gregor is more than willing to be treacherous in order to meet girls a little more dim-witted than the norm. It is in these eccentric behaviours that Men & Chicken consistently entertains.
You cannot take your eyes off of anyone; this is particularly true with Mr. Mikkelsen himself. Unlike Gabriel, Elias fits in with the three brother’s manic lifestyles like a duck to water. He is a persistent masturbator who must attend to his sexual urges multiple times a day, he is constantly rude, impatient and uninhibited, idiosyncrasies that Mikkelsen makes completely his own. To think that this is the same man who showed his unparalleled and incredible dramatic chops in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, Mikkelsen morphs into this eccentric and wild character with ease like a chameleon. But there is more to him than just long pauses and antisocial behaviour. Every thought process and every twitch in his eye, everything in considered with a depth that far outstrips just being “quirky”. Mikkelsen digs deeper; he makes his character memorable and funny.
Men & Chicken salutes classic horror films set in the middle of nowhere. From Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Island of Dr. Moreau, Men & Chicken feels as if it was initially a horror film, but the last draft of the script feels as if it was given a polish-up from Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews of Father Ted fame. That iconic TV comedy and Jensen‘s film are of the same essence in their approach to the eccentrically funny, twisted and macabre. The long echoing hallways of the sanatorium perfectly complement the disturbing but hysterical sense of humour.
Humour is completely in the eye of the beholder, in the picking of examples into what makes the film eccentricity funny you are spoilt for chance. The four brothers (including Elias and minus Gabriel) have a special room where they play badminton and dress in tennis whites, it is forbidden for anyone to interrupt the person who is telling a story at bedtime, resulting in awkward raising of hands. The harbouring of such bizarre rules and regulations is attention grabbing.
Men & Chicken is blatantly not everyone’s cup of tea, and without spoiling every joke, the film ends on a bitter-sweet and tender note on the topic of dysfunctional families. The secret under the family’s name is horrifying, but Men & Chicken openly admits to such lunacy and sickness with a smile and a wink. Jensen acknowledges this throughout, and it is this approach that makes Men & Chicken one of the most memorable and striking films of the year. You might find it alienating and repugnant, or you could submit to its strangeness and laugh along with it – either way, embrace the insanity.