Say this for “Men & Chicken”: The title says it all. Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen delivers an absurdist, fitfully unpleasant meditation on animal instinct and the civilizing power of tolerance and love in a bizarre story of interspecies relationships that resembles “The Island of Dr. Moreau” by way of Kierkegaard.
David Dencik and Mads Mikkelsen (of TV’s “Hannibal”) play Gabriel and Elias, two maladjusted brothers who, upon the death of their father, make a life-changing discovery. Traveling to the isolated Danish island of Ork, they seek to reconnect with their roots, and embark on a mystery concerning their origins that takes them into deeply unsettling territory — psychologically and literally, when they take up residence with a group of outcasts living in the tumbledown ruins of an abandoned house that’s become a provisional home for a menagerie of human and animal residents.
Elias — played by Mikkelsen in a virtually unrecognizable performance — is an unsavory character, dominated by his base desires and prone to blunt physical and verbal outbursts. Gabriel is more refined, concerning himself with the human need for truth, whether in the form of science, philosophy or God. There are no allegorical subtexts in “Men & Chicken,” only texts, in the form of weird visuals and pseudo-profound speeches about human nature.
Jensen, working with his own script, does a good job of setting up the self-consciously weird atmosphere of “Men & Chicken,” and the film’s production design — especially of the strange domicile at the story’s center — evokes both the modest comforts of home (or its closest approximation) and sinister forces that may or may not lie beneath. Mikkelsen may be the marquee name in the production, but he never outshines the film’s capable ensemble, which in addition to Dencik includes Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Soren Malling and Nicolas Bro.
Although the conclusion of the film can’t be described as a shock, it lands with an ugly, heavy-handed thud. Jensen positions “Men & Chicken” as a fablelike ode to humanism and tolerance, but his obsession with brutish sexuality and mean, slapstick humor makes that claim feel unearned and glib. It’s often as harsh as heartfelt, cruel as coolly observant. “Men & Chicken” might have set out to be outrageous and darkly provocative, but instead it winds up feeling creepy, weird and condescending.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. In Danish with subtitles. Contains adult themes and sexual innuendo. 100 minutes.