I’m no stranger to Europe’s absurdist cinema movement, but Men & Chicken is operating on its own elevated plateau of weirdness. Anders Thomas Jensen (one of the men scripting Stephen King’s The Dark Tower adaptation) somehow weaves beastiality, group floggings and chronic masturbation into a tender, simple-minded love letter, but obscurity plays as dry as petrified dinosaur bones. Jensen’s characters are so in-tune with their quirks that shock-value is lost, which numbs audiences like a dull anesthetic. We want to react, but we simply cannot. Paralysis by over-exposure, perhaps?
In true, pitch-black fashion, Men & Chicken begins with a death. Gabriel (David Dencik) witnesses his father pass, and calls his brother Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) with the news. Together, the boys watch a pre-taped video of unknown origin, in which their now-deceased father reveals he’s not actually their biological match. This brings Elias and Gabriel to the Island of Ork, where their real father supposedly resides.
It’s here that the duo stumbles upon three more brothers they never knew, a fearful mayor, and his neurotic daughter. Nothing goes as planned, as Elias takes to his new family’s strange habits with more enthusiasm than Gabriel. Could Gabriel really be related to such barbaric heathens? Why is his biological father, Evelio, locked away and never to be disturbed? What’s with the genetically altered chickens? So many questions, with so many bizarre, increasingly disturbing answers…
So, I mean…shit – where does one even begin? In searching for parental closure, two (half) brothers stumble upon scientific creations and a genetic formula developed by some kook who turns out to be their real father. That’s the game afoot here. It’s rather intriguing, and there’s no denying deadpan humor, but where similarly demented films (Borgman) deliver shock and awe, Men & Chicken falls inexplicably flat. Shades of classic The Three Stooges bits influence slaspstick buffoonery, yet Jensen also goes the route of Michel Gondry when Gabriel takes a closer look at the animals surrounding him. It’s a dilapidated fairytale filtered through an odd perverseness, which certain surrealists will consider a prime cut (“certain” being highlighted here).
Aesthetically, Jensen builds an empty ghost-town that doubles as a blanket excuse for many of the unannounced “gags.” The three brothers we meet later on – Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Franz (Søren Malling) and Josef (Nicolas Bro) – live a primal, lawless existence, simply because Ork is so desolate. Almost no women inhabit the island, so hooking up with old denture-chewing grannies seems fine given the alternatives. Problems are solved by bashing one another with oversized objects, iron cages are used for punishment, and cheese is protected like a precious metal. Bizarre practices? Of course. Modern society surely would look down on such actions, but these habitual desires eventually lead to Jensen’s deranged climax, and a sun-shine-y conclusion (if you can call it that?).
Unfortunately, that’s not before the jokes exhaust their shorter-than-expected lifespans.
Despite Men & Chicken‘s ridiculous approach, all performers take to Jensen’s world with confounding vigor. Mikkelsen, for example, ditches his typically suave criminal look for something dumbfounding and uncharacteristically boneheaded. No matter what’s asked for, these cleft-lipped siblings keep up a subdued outlandishness devoid of reality, but invested enthusiastically in character representation. Dencik fights psychical ailments, Bro waxes conspiracies, and Malling sports a deformed nose. Bravo to commitment here, because Men & Chicken never breaks tone – whether that’s a positive or negative remains up to you.
Credit Anders Thomas Jensen with finding a unique way to rehash the age-old “outcast finds purpose” arc, and credit his cast for standing steadfast alongside their fearless leader. It takes balls to create something with independent spirit, and my opinion does nothing to lessen that feat. Many will find brilliance in Franz’s cranial bashings, and humor in Josef’s biblical bedtime stories. Others will laugh at the unexpected size of novelty pots, and enjoy a journey through brotherly bonding of the utmost psychotic order. If you’re tuning in for wild foreign abandon, Jensen certainly hatched quite the spring chicken for you.
That said, there’s a time and place for letting your freak flag fly, but Men & Chicken just isn’t the kind of familial existentialism that gets me excited. May your experience be a more illuminating one, masturbatory story breaks and all. God speed.
Men & Chicken brings brotherly bonding to weird, absurd new levels, but its deadpan nature goes flat after the umpteenth battle royale.