'Men & Chicken' ('Maend & Hons'): TIFF Review

Men and Chicken Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Danish version of Southern Gothic is both funny-ha-ha and funny-strange.

Mads Mikkelsen is one of five very unusual brothers learning about their father's secret hobbies.

Even given the standards of off-the-rails cinematic family reunions, you'd have to look a while to find one as bizarre as Anders Thomas Jensen's Men & Chicken, in which two misfit brothers go in search of their biological father and find three siblings even weirder than themselves. Mads Mikkelsen will be the pic's big draw Stateside, but this is an ensemble affair in which his game goofiness is less a showboaty turn than glue holding disparate elements together. Just picked up by Drafthouse Films for spring 2016 U.S. release, the Danish import is a natural addition to their eccentric roster of button-pushing films and should benefit from the distrib's niche marketing savvy.

A frequent Susanne Bier collaborator best known for co-writing the 2004 film Brothers, which was remade in 2009 with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire (he's currently adapting Stephen King's The Dark Tower for Sony), Jensen here begins with a more comically strained sibling relationship. Gabriel (David Dencik) is an academic who has clearly worked hard overcoming unspecified hurdles to achieve a normal life; Gabriel (Mikkelsen) appears to have made no such efforts, and barely hides his compulsive masturbation and all-embracing lust for the opposite sex. (With curly hair and a prosthetic overbite, he suggests a randy woodland creature liberated from some unsanitized fairy tale.)

When their father dies, he leaves behind a taped confession: The men are not his biological children, and were born to different mothers by a father with the exciting name Evelio Thanatos. He's 99 now, they learn, living on the little island of Ork, and the two set off to meet their maker.

But the island is nearly a ghost town, with so few inhabitants its mayor worries that if any die or move away, authorities will stop recognizing it as an official village. Locals say that Evelio lives in a decaying old sanitarium, but seeing him isn't easy: Three other sons live there, each disfigured physically (and probably mentally impaired as well), and they have a Three Stooges approach to strangers — beat them away with everything from institutional-use soup pots to stuffed animals.

Being something of a wild man himself, Elias brokers their peaceful entry and, while Dad is convalescing upstairs and can't yet deal with strangers, the men start to get a feel for the scene. Crammed full of livestock and barely holding together, the family manse is so ratty we can practically smell it. The three brothers (Gregor, Franz and Josef) embrace a similar standard of hygiene, and are so starved for female company they sate their desires in ways even Elias finds disturbing. (See the film's title.) But despite Gabriel's inclination toward disgust, a family connection is impossible to deny, and the five begin to adjust to each others' presence.

What happens from here on is best left for viewers to discover. Suffice to say that Jensen strings along clues and revelations that nicely balance laughs with revulsion, and that he feels for these grotesque characters far more than one would expect from an American film with a similar concept. These guys are a mess, to be sure, and Dad is far from an adoptee's dream. But this is the family they've got, and this is the place they have to live. And as the script mock-profoundly declares, "Life is life, and the alternative is never to be preferred."


Production companies: M&M Productions, Studio Babelsberg Motion Pictures, DCM Productions, Film i Väst

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, David Dencik, Soren Malling, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro

Director-Screenwriter: Anders Thomas Jensen

Producers: Tivi Magnusson, Kim Magnusson, Peter Nadermann

Executive producers: Henning Molfenter, Christoph Fisser, Carl Woebcken, Dario Suter, Christoph Daniel, Marc Schmidheiny, Joel Brandeis

Director of photography: Sebastian Blenkov

Production designer: Mia Stensgaard

Costume designer: Manon Rasmussen

Editor: Anders Villadsen

Music: Frans Bak, Jeppe Kaas

Casting directors: Rie Hedegaard, Anders Nygaard

No rating, 103 minutes