All words: Alan Pyke
People think Hercules had an undefeated record on his labors, but the truth is he only shot 12-of-13 from the floor. “Make Mads Mikkelsen unsexy,” the king said, and the demigod snort-laughed and told him to go fuck himself.
Turns out it takes the eight-person makeup crew who worked on writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen’s Men & Chicken on hand to make the unsettlingly magnetic Hannibal star unlovely. Their chief weapons: A terrible mustache and a carefully engineered cleft lip.
The rest is down to Mikkelsen’s own immense talent. The reptilian facial reserve bizarre poise that define his most famous roles are utterly absent from Elias, the rude and scurrying compulsive masturbator at the heart of Jensen’s madcap dark comedy.
Mikkelsen injects the not-quite-clever, not-quite-civilized man with a manic, shifty affect that is as captivating as it is uncomfortable to watch. While far fitter and quicker-fisted than his younger brother Gabriel, Elias always seems to hunch, slump, and shuffle.
The younger man, played with barely-contained exasperation and professorial disdain by David Dencik (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), moves with all the sobriety and self-conscious dignity that is so alien to Elias. The brothers are mis-matched shoes, forcibly kept in pair by the professor’s childhood promise that they’d always stick together, and by his refusal to acknowledge he is unwanted and unpleasant.
But the death of their elderly father at the start of Men & Chicken reveals a mystery that demands a joint pursuit: they were adopted, their biological father is a stem cell researcher on the remote island of Ork, and their two different biological mothers each died in childbirth. It’s scientifically logical that both Elias and Gabriel were born with the same facial cleft, the younger half-brother notes, but the odds that two separate mothers each died birthing them in the mid-20th century are implausibly long.
The bizarre, meticulously crafted saga that unfolds as they track down their family history is laugh-packed, the guffaws often sewn together with a cringe. Men beat each other with taxidermy. Dimwits enforce a strict and blindly accepted code of conduct upon one another, regretting their dumb cruelty only when it impedes their badminton games. Ork is nearly abandoned, so its mayor will accept anything just to keep the population above the threshold for being erased from the official maps of Denmark.
Jensen and cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov are careful to balance the absurdity of their tale with an austere visual style. As relationships bend and branch throughout Gabriel and Elias’ quest, Blenkov’s framing of their bodies evolves in counterpoint.
Early on the camera holds the pair in the center of balanced shots. A prologue sequence shows them gliding together down an eerily lit hallway. That fantastical feel evaporates suddenly into realism as Gabriel marches down a hospital hallway to their father’s room, the camera now tracking backward in closeup of the balding man’s centered face. The boat that ferries them to Ork also cleaves the middle of the frame, water to either side, but this time Blenkov is looking straight down from a cloud’s-eye view.
On the island, this pattern dissolves and the men are shown imbalanced and severed from one another in various shots. When Elias drives across Ork near the end of the film, Blenkov composes a beautiful frame – mostly gray sky and yellow field, with a church distantly visible in a bottom corner – but shows the vehicle from the side and far away, the oldest brother’s transport no longer a thing of harmony but one of lunging.
And the camera can tell jokes too, of course. The first hint of Elias’ ugly personality comes from a cleverly built progression of cuts, pulling gradually out from the restaurant table where he’s actively ruining a date to reveal his companion’s wheelchair, and the fullness of his cruelty.
What ultimately emerges is a rough allegory for how men respond to the death of God, enforcing an authoritarian style of community through a nasty slurry of principle and compromise. Jensen’s screenplay strings out the core mystery of who the men’s father was and why his wives all died as their sons came into the world carefully. Those big questions drive the tale along without smothering the mix of slapstick and ensemble banter that are really the point of Men & Chicken.
Less inscrutable than Waiting for Godot, more illuminating than a philosophy lecture, and more cynical about society and existence than a Rust Cohle solliloquy in True Detective, Jensen’s film has plenty of sugar to help the medicine go down. But he’s let it burn at the edges. After you’ve swallowed, the dose leaves an acrid note behind: Disgust for how both the bookish and the brutish alike try to make order out of a universe not built for any of us.