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Life and death dominate the early goings of “Men & Chicken,” with a fairytale opening centered on unhatched eggs giving way to the clinical, harsh fluorescent lighting of a hospital. Written and directed by “In a Better World” and “After the Wedding” writer Anders Thomas Jensen, the film carries that preoccupation with origins and fates through a tale that amuses and unsettles in equal measure. But while “Men & Chicken” lands its brand of twisted comedy with a few cringeworthy laughs, the film doesn’t quite live up to the lofty ideas that populate those twists.
Things aren’t going well for Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik), two brothers caught in a cycle of social ineptitude. Elias is dominated by the twin disappointments of sexual frustration and hormonal insatiability, leaving Gabriel’s efforts at love and friendship severely hampered in his wake. Their fortunes change with the death of their father and a from-the-grave video confession that Elias and David were not only adopted, but that their scientist biological father might still have answers to their mysterious lineage. Desperate for clues that might help them unlock some answers to their respective shortcomings, they travel to Ork, a remote, secluded island purported to be the doctor’s current whereabouts.
Once Elias and Gabriel arrive at the property in question, they’re greeted by three of the house’s inhabitants, all with the same harelip and general air of dysfunction that the two visitors happen to share. After a brief, head-trauma-inducing skirmish, the five brothers reluctantly begin to acknowledge their shared parentage and carve out a hierarchy within the decaying, animal-filled halls of their father’s erstwhile provincial palace.
Jensen’s approach to capturing the island setting is anything but idyllic. This is more Elba than Corsica, with the inhabitants of the house existing as de facto prisoners of their own heritage. When four of them team up for a doubles badminton match, their all-white tennis outfits might as well be inmate uniforms. Though Elias and Gabriel do meet some of the other island residents, Jensen restricts a majority of the action to the dilapidated menagerie, barely bothering to let any of these disputes spill out beyond the property’s immediate boundaries. And the film’s color palette is as faded as the mansion’s wallpaper, drab and muted.
Mikkelsen has made a career stateside by playing men of sinister authority who wield their power through absolute control and an acute awareness of the vulnerabilities of their opponents. One of the quirky joys of “Men & Chicken” is seeing a bevy of impulses and misgivings rise to the surface, rather than be skillfully suppressed. His speed-talking attempts to woo women or make his case to his next of kin are a stark contrast to the measured, deliberate characters of Mikkelsen’s filmography. Conversely, Dencik’s Gabriel plays to the actor’s strengths that he’s proved elsewhere, pairing the physicality of a nervous retching tic with the empathetic voice of sanity under absurd consequences. Even though there’s something off-kilter about Gabriel, Dencik’s reactions of disbelief are the true markers that life on this island might be irreparably amiss.
The other trio of brothers are tethered to their respective defining features. Intellectually and spiritually inquisitive Josef (Nicolas Bro) and lady-obsessed simpleton Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) both take Elias and Gabriel’s ingratiation better than previous house captain Franz (Soren Malling, who Jensen gives the tried-and-true shorthand creep hobby of taxidermy). All of them exude the conflicted auras of Leatherface and The Three Stoges, each with varying levels of self-awareness.
The backbone of “Men & Chicken” (these animals scattered throughout the house are almost exclusively vertebrates, by the way) is the absurdity of its premise. But aside from cartoonish elements of their physical tussles (one rolling-pin attack comes complete with a “boink!” sound effect) and some minor wordplay, the film is surprisingly restrained.
That initial restraint seems more puzzling given the emotional and narrative territory this film eventually embraces. (The preceding hints at what binds these brothers together feel like loud shouts after Jensen plays all his cards.) By design, most of these brothers exist as members of a neuroses parade that doesn’t abate until some crushing late-film revelations. After that extra layer of understanding is given both to the characters and the audience, fertile storytelling potential is mostly relegated to a shortened coda.
This pervasive feeling of personality stasis among its human characters ultimately keeps the film locked in place. As the secrets behind the house and the patriarch who served as its benefactor are revealed, the film defiantly stays focused on the interplay between the brothers. It’s a shame then, that the two most interesting characters in a character-driven piece are a giant house and a man who…let’s just say doesn’t have a whole lot of direct involvement with the plot.
“The humor on this island tends to be basic,” remarks one character shortly after the brothers’ arrival. While the same can’t be said for the film overall, it doesn’t get as far away from that descriptor as this kind of material might otherwise afford. It’s a prolonged journey to self-realization that can feel a bit frustrating when it sticks this close to the farm.
“Men and Chicken” opens in limited release this Friday.