In the opening minutes of the darkly comic Danish film Men & Chicken, writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen sets himself up for a daunting challenge. He puts two repulsive human beings on screen and tries, over the course of the next two hours, to make us sympathize with them. When we first see Elias (Mads Mikkelsen), he’s on a date with a psychologist he met online, although he’s only trying to scam her for free therapy. He needs it badly. In no time, he chides her for interrupting him, cruelly mocks her disability, and then rushes off to the men’s room to masturbate. His brother Gabriel (David Dencik), who sports the same distinctive harelip as Elias, is only slightly more appealing. He appears perfectly normal, except for a disgusting habit of frequently retching for no particular reason.
They are an ugly and odd couple, and yet Jensen does make us feel for them and even see them as heroic, through both effective emotional shortcuts and hard-earned character work. The two brothers come together after the death of their father and a revelation that they were adopted. It turns out their real father is a disgraced scientist who lives in the tiny island town of Ork. Elias and Gabriel travel there, where they meet their three half-brothers, who are, to varying degrees, even more grotesque and unpleasant than they are. The boys move in, and while their elderly father never comes out of his room, they get a weird and wonderful education in their family history all the same.
Most of the action takes place inside the house, which the brothers, uneducated and unemployed, rarely leave. It’s a mansion that has become dilapidated, redneck-style. Picture Grey Gardens but in Mississippi. The paint is peeling from the walls, the furniture is falling apart, and farm animals roam the house uncaged. When asked what the animals are for, Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), the youngest and most lonely of the brothers, doesn’t mince words: “They won’t feel a thing. They’re used to laying eggs.”
Bestiality is only one of the increasing perversions with which Jensen confronts his audience, but he is not simply a provocateur in the tradition of John Waters or even Tom Six (of The Human Centipede series). There are surely moments of pure ickiness, but Men & Chicken is more interested in the interior emotional lives of its human subjects. Elias is a fascinating contradiction of a man: fiercely loyal, violent, and quick to anger, and yet undeniably vulnerable. The against-type casting of Mads Mikkelsen, a hunky Dane known for playing Hannibal Lecter on TV, goes a long way here; when Elias brags (often) of his sexual prowess, we find ourselves believing him despite all evidence to the contrary.
By the time Gabriel is trying to civilize the poor triumvirate of yokels, Men & Chicken will be a painfully dichotomous experience, with the provocative elements too disgusting to watch and the sentimentality entirely unearned. But there are those weirdos who will be tuned to its frequency and can celebrate a film that finds sweetness even in the most dirty, grimy, and perverse corners of the human soul.
Men & Chicken opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.