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You never know what will come out of Denmark next. From the turmoils of medieval Elsinore to the chastising vows of Dogme 95— one cleaning out the royals, the other the movie rules — if there’s something rotten in this state it’s not for want of an urge to purge. Cleanse-and-start-again fundamentalism is the creed. Perhaps the Danes believe they can even reinvent the laws of life and procreation. They give it a try in Men & Chicken.
This sly, black comedy-drama from Anders Thomas Jensen, writer-director, serves up awful warnings. The plot has a time-bomb dystopianism. Old mansions contain ominous secrets. Nasty things are seen in storage jars that are not jam or marmalade. And every character is conflicted, starting with the squabbling brothers Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik). Edgy, hare-lipped and emotionally arrested — Elias is a pathological masturbator — they learn one day that their biological father was, or is, an evolutionary geneticist living on a remote island. Off they go to the island. Roll the plot.
I can’t spoil by saying more. Enough to say: this is the land that gave us Danish bacon and Kierkegaard — cured meat and incurable existential angst — and a clammy sense grows that Jensen has taken Kierkegaard’s philosophy of epiphanic doubt and self-doubt and constructed precise scientific grounds for it.
Elias and Gabriel find more brothers; and a clapped-out house full of laboratory nightmares; and evidence that this island once resembled, and may still, a famous atoll imagined by H.G. Wells. It’s a scary, discomfiting, clever film, hard to rid from your head once you’ve seen it. Best among the actors, all called on to play repelled or repellent, is Mikkelsen. The ex-Bond villain wears a moustache, a Christopher Walken hairdo and a permanent, vulnerable look of spooked expectation. You almost come to love him: not a common response to the heroes or antiheroes of New Danish Cinema.