Maybe it’s time we stop taking Mads Mikkelsen so seriously? It’s hard to reconcile the brooding, anguished Danish actor from The Hunt, After the Wedding, and more with the erratic oddball he plays in the absurd and disgusting Men & Chicken. With a frock of curly hair and a mustache that screams “sexual predator”, he plays Elias, the relentlessly masculine, perpetually masturbating brother to Gabriel (David Dencik), who is no prize himself. With their jacked up noses and unavoidable hair-lips, they look like a mad scientist’s rejected experiments, and as it turns out their unique features are a family trait.
Writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen, a staple of the Dogme 95 movement who has worked with Mikkelsen on much darker material in the past, veers into absurdist territory that’s like something out of The Three Stooges…but the most twisted Stooges you’ve ever seen. It’s not a combination that works for very long, but for a while the barrage of wacky characters and ridiculous occurrences make for a supremely enjoyable ride. Gabriel has just learned from his recently-deceased father (even his rather smelly demise is pretty funny) on a hilariously awful home video that he and Elias were adopted, and that they are only half-brothers. Their real father is a mysterious man named Evelio Thanatos, who lives on the sparsely populated island of Ork. When Gabriel calls Elias to tell him the news, he’s busy on a date with a wheelchair-bound therapist who has figured out he only picked her for free therapy. His denials in the face of the obvious are nearly worth enduring the entire film for.
Upon arriving in Ork, the brothers encounter three strange men; Franz (Soren Maling), Josef (Nicolas Bro), and Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who beat up strangers with giant pots, stuffed birds, and anything else they can find. It isn’t long before they figure out they all share the same father and are half-brothers, each with a different mother. Things only get weirder from here, and the film actually benefits from being as bonkers and free from structure as possible. It’s too much fun just delighting in the silliness of it all. The boys live in a rundown house full of farm animals, play random pickup games of badminton, and get together at night for bedtime stories like a bunch of kids. Watching the likes of Mikkelsen, Maling, and Dencik indulge in this kind of crazy behavior is what Men & Chicken should have stayed about.
The first half is so good that it’s only matched by the disappointment of the second half when things start getting weird in a bad way. What had been a twisted good time becomes a gross-out fest due to some grim revelations about the brothers and their…..relationship to the animals. Hey, it gets lonely living on a farm with nary a woman in sight, but what we learn actually goes much deeper than that. Jensen’s approach to this grim discovery is to play it as straight as possible, which if he found a way to make light of something so heinous it could be tolerated. Controversial material is nothing new for Jensen and he usually takes it head-on, but this was the wrong time and the wrong film for him to do it. At that point it’s hard to look at these characters as anything but their most disgusting traits, and sadly the narrative becomes solely about that one depressing thing, as well. Not even the admittedly unforgettable sight of Mikkelsen coddling a sheep can pull Men & Chicken out of its despair.