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'Butchers': A Lean but Tasty Cut

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page C05

With "The Green Butchers," Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, an alumnus of the strict anti-genre Dogme 95 faction of filmmakers, has reversed fields and made a very tidy little genre picture -- a black comedy, in fact. About cannibalism. Which just goes to show that it's a Dogme eat Dogme world.

In these grim but funny tales (think of the brilliant musical "Sweeney Todd" and cult film "Eating Raoul"), the first body always pops up by chance, a regrettable but convenient fatality that sends a once-hapless protagonist down the slippery but lucrative slope toward murder and a fresh menu.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas, left, and Mads Mikkelsen have a secret behind their chops and steaks in the darkly comic Danish film "The Green Butchers." (Newmarket Films)

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In this case, the unseasoned young butchers of the title don't seem to be bad guys, though they certainly look creepy. As Bjarne, Nikolaj Lie Kaas has the thick lips and stubbled scalp of a cartoon gangster, while Mads Mikkelsen, as the astonishingly sweaty Svend, looks like a castoff from an old German horror film. His mesmerizing hairline has receded like a frightened army and his hollow-cheeked face is gaunt as a fashion model's; he's all skull.

Svend and Bjarne believe they can be better butchers than their bullying, gaptoothed hog of a boss. So they set up shop and watch the paint dry until the inevitable, fatal accident occurs. All of a sudden, they have a ready supply of choice cuts that simply can't be rivaled.

Naturally, there is a profound ethical bridge to cross here, and Jensen keeps us guessing as the two friends squabble over whether to sprint across or turn back. The moralizing allegory of mankind devouring itself is de rigueur in cannibal comedies -- we're a horrific race, all of us, but God, that's good! -- yet Jensen doesn't get pious about it. He's too scrupulous a storyteller, too puckish an entertainer.

On top of that, he really likes his characters, especially Bjarne, through whose soulful, dreamy eyes -- did I mention that he smokes 20 joints a day? -- this story is filtered.

Jensen's tone is admirably dry, and the film offers its pleasures through small, writerly details. Bjarne's love, a girl-next-door type named Astrid (played with fetching cheerfulness by Line Kruse), has a job that parallels his own. Her employer, Rev. Villumsen, resides in a hothouse that's a direct contrast to the scary frozen meat locker at the butcher shop, but each place is airless in its own way, and the stories are gruesomely similar in both. The characters' back stories all riff on the same morbid motif and are laced with comic ironies; Jensen has a track record as a prolific scenarist, and he clearly knows how to write a tight script.

He's not a bad director, either, recognizing that he can get a great deal of mileage out of the expressive faces and earnest deadpan deliveries of his two stars. Kaas does effective double duty, playing not only the grim, oddly principled Bjarne but also Bjarne's gregarious brain-damaged brother, Eigil (a vegetarian, natch).

Mikkelsen's haunted-nerd turn is lustrous, and not only due to his bizarrely copious perspiration. Svend is so pathetic and put upon -- such a longtime loser -- that it's hard not to sympathize as he flails his way through life. Still, that vast, shiny forehead, those repulsive globules of sweat, that nervous smile that grows eerie and smug as his shop becomes popular -- he's an Everyman going to the devil, and feeling every bit of the heat.

The Green Butchers (95 minutes, at Landmark E Street) is rated R for subtitled Danish swearing and raw footage of suspicious meat.

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