“Rotten” doesn’t begin to describe the stench emanating from the state of Denmark in “Men & Chicken,” the latest — and by far most difficult to classify — feature from director Anders Thomas Jensen, best known abroad for his screenwriting collaborations with Oscar winner Susanne Bier (though he won one, too, for his short “Election Night”). This staggering account of family dysfunction, secret-hoarding and tragedy on the far fringes of Danish society actually hews much closer to Jensen’s previous dark-comedy directorial efforts “Flickering Lights” and “Adam’s Apples,” being a bizarre parable of five ill-mannered and grotesquely disfigured half-brothers brought together by their father’s death. Though the ingredients suggest a cult horror movie, Jensen’s sensibility tends to skew more philosophical, layering this oddity with existential questions sure to perplex the gonzo-amenable audience most apt to embrace it abroad.
Beginning with the glowing good cheer of a fairy tale, but quick to reveal the sinister social satire that undermines its misleadingly whimsical opening narration, “Men & Chicken” presents two brothers, Elias (“Hannibal’s” Mads Mikkelsen, stripped of all sex appeal) and Gabriel (David Dencik), who have nothing in common but their generally disheveled appearance, most notably the badly scarred cleft palates that turn their mouths into anguished snarls. As it happens, even the question of their kinship could be in doubt, at least according to a VHS tape left behind by the old coot who raised them. The hilariously ill-framed home video suggests that the boys were taken in after failing to live up to their biological father’s demands — a claim that naturally sends them off to the remote island where their real dad is said to be holed up.
Every so often, a feature production lands upon a location so evocative, the spot becomes the defining characteristic of the film itself. Jensen has lucked upon just such an iconic building with “Men & Chicken,” which takes place mostly in and around the ruins of a dilapidated sanitarium where Elias and Gabriel reunite with three lunatics — Franz (Soren Malling), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Josef (Nicolas Bro) — who appear to be their long-lost half-brothers, based on the family’s distinguishing harelip, if nothing else (the actual percentages of overlapping DNA being a matter of some contention). If the five men are related, that would make them the freakiest family this side of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
No matter how weird and unruly the rest of the film (a feeling accentuated by its creepy zither-like musical score), this wonderfully off-putting building serves to unify these five guys’ perverse family saga, art-directed to evoke another line from “Hamlet”: “’tis an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature.” Shot in varying shades of manure — to match the burlap-colored costumes and all-around grubbiness of the pic’s palette — the sanitarium resembles a crumbling farmhouse, complete with a rusted old cage in the front lawn, and otherwise overrun with an assortment of rabbits, sheep and miscellaneous livestock. Those that aren’t running wild are preserved in creepy formaldehyde vats, evidence of their father’s mad scientist dabblings.
Speaking of evidence, Jensen cleverly laces “Men & Chicken” with a mix of freak details (like the movie’s missing stork, that animal reputed to deliver babies) and clues to the film’s dark twist (such as the odd customer of trading plates at suppertime), rewarding repeat viewings with the sheer intricacy of design behind the pic’s seemingly anarchic surface. On first viewing, audiences have their hands full merely keeping up with the five characters’ bizarre behavior, their respective eccentricities clearly giving each of the actors endless delight to interpret. For example, Mikkelsen’s character can barely contain his sexual urges, resulting in a running joke where Elias carries around a roll of toilet paper and repeatedly bows out of scenes in order to address his needs in private.
Gabriel is more of a cipher, keeping a watchful distance from the others, though among such halfwits, he is the only one wise enough to put everything together in the end. No doubt what misleads most is the film’s unique mix of high and low humor, blending bawdy misbehavior and broad comedy (such as Franz’s odd habit of beating intruders with taxidermy animals) with the sort of Scandinavian interest in philosophy one might more readily expect from a Bergman film. After all, in its own playful way, this tonally astounding, genre-confounding movie offers a variation on the famous chicken-and-egg debate, being a twisted inquiry into the characters’ origins and mankind’s own search for meaning. With all respect to Shakespeare, according to Jensen’s recipe, you can’t make a “Hamlet” without breaking a few eggs.