not in our stars, but in ourselves
According to Tolstoy, happy families are all alike and unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. According to Anders Thomas Jensen, writer and director of Men & Chicken, you can’t choose your family; and, indeed, your family might be so outrageously fucked up that you wonder how your life will ever be anything but a catastrophe; but hey, you may as well make the most of it.
Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) are brothers. Neither has exactly hit the genetic jackpot: they both have harelips and odd tics (constant retching, on Gabriel’s part) or downright bad habits (chronic masturbation, for Elias – even when he’s on a date). Their dad dies, and they learn that he wasn’t their father at all: the boys were both adopted. As it turns out, they’re still half-brothers. They share a biological father, but come from two different mothers. The biological father’s name is Evelio Thanatos, and he lives on the remote island of Ork, so the brothers go to find him. It seems that Thanatos is something of an island legend, partly because his three sons – Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Franz (Søren Malling), and Josef (Nicolas Bro) – tend to react to visitors much as the Peacock family does in that creepy X Files episode. Indeed, when Gabriel and Elias arrive at the dilapidated mansion, overrun with chickens and pigs and rot, they’re greeted by aggressive thwacking with taxidermied birds, pots, stones, whatever the boys can round up. Nevertheless, Elias – who’s about as well-adjusted as his three newly discovered brothers – manages to get them to calm down so that he and Gabriel can meet their mysterious father. It gets weird.
It’s also, and always, very funny. Is this Denmark’s answer to Arrested Development? Consider it: we’ve got a dysfunctional family that decides to stick together; we’ve got chickens; we’ve got chickens that don’t seem to be correct (“has anyone in this family even seen a chicken?”); we’ve got boy fights. In short, this movie is better and more on-the-mark than the fourth season of Arrested Development. Still, I don’t really think that was the inspiration. What was? Well….
I’ve been trying to think of how I’d categorize Men & Chicken. It is a comedy. It occasionally dips into horror. John DeFore, in his review for The Hollywood Reporter, calls it a “Danish version of Southern Gothic” – and that’s not bad (the crumbling estate, family versus family, society versus the family on top of it, bizarre sexual proclivities that are just barely subtext) – but it’s not quite right, either. In some ways, it feels like a reverse fairy tale: the two sons return home to grapple with the bizarre secret of their origins, where the trajectory usually takes the boys out of their family’s world and off to some other adventure. Maybe it’s a sort of Freudian dream (or nightmare), in which the five sons of one father and five different mothers have to grapple with whatever bizarre sexual hangups with which such a father has saddled them. Maybe it goes even further back in cultural memory, all the way to Greek (or, indeed, Nordic) mythology: all those difficult quests for truth, or for fulfillment, or for the hell of it. Or maybe it’s none of these, or all of these, and maybe it doesn’t matter especially. It’s a good movie. That’s the real point.
One of the best things about it is how sympathetically it treats a cast of complete fuck-ups, even as it acknowledges that they are, in fact, complete fuck-ups. Most of it isn’t their fault, of course: they were born with the genes they were born with, and they’ve tried to make the best of it. For an unsentimental little film, it’s deeply sympathetic to the brothers. They’re all freaks who know, dimly or too clearly, that they’re freaks. They all have harelips and unappealing tics. They all want to get laid; and, indeed, the three newer brothers are all rather in awe of Gabriel when Elias reveals that Gabriel has had a girlfriend and sex and everything. (Until the time when Gabriel and Elias arrived, the other three were making due with the animals on the estate – chickens especially. I did tell you that they were fuck-ups, you know?) They all yearn for peace, harmony, love, even if their own crummy brains constantly propel them into conflict. Who can’t relate to that? We’re all trying to strike the balance between overcoming and accepting our nature; some of us just have a bit more to battle through.
You can all probably guess, from my Hannibal posts, that I’m a big fan of Mikkelsen. One of the things I love the most about him is his ability to play debonair, cultured, refined, seductive men in movies and on TV – while he, in his daily life, is what we might affectionately call Eurotrash. For American audiences, he’s certainly the big name here (although those of us who loved Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will also remember Dencik, who’s excellent in this); but he seems to be an actor refreshingly free of ego or vanity. You can probably figure that out from his public persona, with his Adidas tracksuits and unbuttoned shirts, but it’s still a rare quality in an actor of his ability and stature. As Elias, he’s quite effectively gross and off-putting (in an endearing way): having a wank in a toilet stall while his poor date waits in the restaurant, trying to get laid at a retirement home, scaring away all Gabriel’s girlfriends by thinking they’re in love with him. This is the kind of role that one would expect a character actor to take, not a movie star. It’s most definitely to Mikkelsen’s credit that he doesn’t seem to take himself even remotely as seriously as one of his “equals” likely would. What a guy.
I have waited for this movie to be released in the U.S. for – quite literally – years, by the way. I’d heard about it sometime during the winter before last; I gnashed my teeth when it played at TIFF without an American release date; and I just about did backflips when it finally came to the Kendall in Cambridge. Still, I doubt it will play for long; Mikkelsen is the draw, but he’s not a huge draw, because we Americans are imbeciles; so do go see it as soon as you can, if you can. Sometimes it’s fun when there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.