Anders Thomas Jensen's latest film delivers a genre-bending story, a dark sense of humour, and a delightful cast of oddballs.
Men & ChickenSubtitle: English
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen
Cast: David Dencik, Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Soren Malling, Nicolas Bro
Length: 104 min
Studio: M&M Productions
MPAA Rating: N/A
UK Release Date: 2016-06-03
US Release Date: 2016-04-22 (Limited)
Early on in Men & Chicken, Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen), a pair of oddball brothers, learn that their father has passed away. Seeking solace in each other's company, the brothers get together to watch a VHS tape containing their father's final words. As Gabriel sits in anticipation of their father's goodbye, Elias munches on a snack as though he's at a Saturday afternoon matinee. As the tape starts playing, the camera slides down, cropping their father off above the shoulders, a visual quip that doubles down on the scene's flippant tone.
Men & Chicken quickly establishes itself as a black comedy goldmine; it's hard not to chuckle at the brother's poor father as he's cut out of frame during his last words. However, upon closer inspection, what seems like a simple visual jest (the indignity heaped upon the father) is in fact symbolic; in his final message, Elias and Gabriel's "father" reveals that both of his "sons" are adopted.
The image of a faceless father represents the brother's quest to find out who they are and where they come from. This scene does a wonderful job of encapsulating Men & Chicken; although the sight gags, wacky characters, and gallows humour immediately stand out, the film also contains the type of deep themes, insightful messages, and touching moments that are rarely found in comedies.
After processing the shocking news that they're adopted, Gabriel and Elias begin a journey to meet their biological father. Their odyssey takes them to the nearly uninhabited island of Ork (population 42). What Ork lacks in diversity, tourist attractions, culture, and Chipotles, it makes up for with a bustling community of weirdos. Included in Ork's eccentric population are Elias and Gabriel's three half-brothers, Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Franz (Soren Malling), and Josef (Nicolas Bro).
After a hilariously confrontational first meeting, Gregor, Franz, and Josef welcome their newfound brothers into their family's home. As the five men slowly get to know one another, Gabriel is determined to learn why his new brothers remain so secretive about their father.
Men & Chicken's writer and director, Anders Thomas Jensen is to black humour enthusiasts what Walt Disney is to fairy-tale loving children. Jensen's prior films, such as Adam's Apples and The Green Butchers, are cinematic playgrounds for those whose tastes lean towards the dark, twisted, and morally perverse. While Men & Chicken is tonally in line with Jensen's filmography, the world he places his characters in is far more heightened. Even though Gabriel and Elias' story occurs in an unrealistic setting, their emotional journeys are relatable. This ensures that the film's absurd nature doesn't detract from how it emotionally impacts the audience.
Men & Chicken is a captivating, well-made film that succeeds on multiple levels, but its major selling point is how funny the movie is -- it's flat out hilarious. Jensen weaves together a tapestry of comedic styles: slapstick, black comedy, low-brow humour, and satire. Assuming one is not easily offended, Men & Chicken offers a smorgasbord of comedic elements and a consistent parade of laughs from the opening frame until the closing credits.
The film's cast is rock solid from top to bottom, but the movie's MVP is Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen and Jensen are frequent collaborators; they've worked together so often that Jensen factors Mikkelsen into his writing process. Those that only know Mikkelsen from his villainous roles in Hannibal or Casino Royal are in for a shock. His character, Elias, is the opposite of everything mainstream audiences have come to expect from the Danish actor; he's obnoxious, insecure, and uncouth.
Indeed, Mikkelsen inhabits the role of Elias so completely that one is left to wonder if "Mads" is an actor or a Body Snatcher. As his collaborations with Jensen have proven, again and again, Mikkelsen possesses major comedic chops. One can only hope that Hollywood realizes this and gives him an opportunity to unleash his quirky side on North American audiences.
Elias exemplifies the type of character that Jensen is so adept at writing. On the surface there isn't much to like about Elias; he's selfish, delusional, and bursting at the seams with unsubstantiated bravado (he is also prone to giving in to his base nature). It's very easy for the audience to turn on a character with such objectionable behaviour. Jensen gets the viewers to empathize with Elias by rooting his actions in relatable emotions. Instead of creating a degenerate through and through, Elias is like the child occupying Tom Hanks' body in Big (only if that kid was ripped from the cast of American Pie).
By relating to Elias as an emotionally stunted man-child, his terrible behaviour is given context; Elias is similar to a wayward adolescent impersonating a man, and his actions are that of an unsophisticated, clumsy impressionist. When the audience sees Elias lash out, his rudeness is accepted as growing pains instead of petty insults, and the audience can root for him.
While Elias' outrageous antics may steal scenes, it's Gabriel's arc that lay at the heart of the film. Whereas Gabriel's four brothers embrace their roles as endearing kooks, he refuses to accept both his family and his nature. Gabriel fancies himself a man of logic, science, and refined tastes; he's well read, studies philosophy, and even undergoes plastic surgery to address his perceived cosmetic flaws. When Gabriel learns that he's adopted, he's actually relieved. The possibility of who his real family may be fills him with wonder as he fantasizes about descending from a lineage of forward thinkers akin to Copernicus, Tesla, Spinoza, Kepler, and Darwin.
Gabriel's venture towards self-discovery is the most relatable aspect of the film. At one time or another, almost everyone feels like an outsider within their own family, especially as they transition out of childhood. During our adolescent years, there's a constant tug of war between feeling smothered by our loved ones and also longing for their reassuring embrace. As Elias finds comfort in his new family (in one scene four grown men huddle together for a bedtime story), Gabriel distances himself and tries to change his brothers by instilling his own values upon them.
Gabriel sees his brothers as troglodytes and feels like an outsider while amongst them. At some point, everybody's family squabbles, acts petty, loses patience with each other or outright embarrasses them. Part of growing up means accepting family for who they are, not who we want them to be. Gabriel's arc teaches him and the audience that amidst all of life's uncertainties, there's comfort in the familiarity that family offers – if you allow it.
Depending on one's tastes, Men & Chicken has several potential drawbacks, chief among them is its crude humour. This film isn't afraid to offend; bodily fluids, shots at religion, and sexual debauchery are all in play. Men & Chicken is also very difficult to define; it falls under the broad umbrella of comedy, it's a cinematic hodgepodge of fantasy and even sci-fi (e.g., the random appearances of bizarre animal hybrids is evocative of H.G. Wells', The Island of Dr. Moreau) and even horror.
Men & Chicken begins in an outlandish place and the story keeps escalating until it becomes completely absurd, and every moment along the way is an utter joy. The film features thought-provoking concepts, a well-written script, and engaging performances from the entire cast. Amidst all of its outlandish hijinks, Men & Chicken also takes the time to sneak in some reassuring messages. Most notably, that family is like a hole in a puzzle where we always fit, even when the pieces around us seem too different to actually click. Men & Chicken is that rare type of film that leaves you wanting to devour everything in the director's filmography.