You can’t accuse “Men & Chicken” of false advertising: There are men and there are chickens. After 90 minutes or so of this bizarrely comic Danish parable about our animal natures, you may have trouble telling them apart. The characters do.
As visually overstuffed as a hoarder’s apartment, the movie improves as it goes. It would sort of have to, given that the opening scene involves a social maladroit named Elias rushing off from a blind date with a wheelchair-bound psychotherapist (Maj-Britt Mathiesen) to masturbate in a restaurant bathroom. That Elias is played by Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale,” “The Hunt”), the heartthrob leading man of Danish cinema, is part of the intentionally queasy joke.
Elias has a brother, Gabriel (David Dencik), the latter as intelligent and soulful as the former is swaggeringly moronic. Early in “Men & Chicken,” the two learn from their dying father that they were adopted and that their birth father was a mysterious genetic researcher named Evelio Thanatos, who lives on a remote island with his other sons. Upon arriving at the old homestead — an abandoned sanitarium, really — Elias and Gabriel are set upon by their newfound brothers, who are unwashed, unschooled, and deranged. Gabriel is horrified. Elias fits right in.
The writer-director is Anders Thomas Jensen, a one-time stalwart of the Dogme school of cinematic bad boys who has made a career scripting approximately half the movies to come out of Denmark in the last two decades. For director Susanne Bier, Jensen writes earnest melodramas that occasionally win Oscars (2010’s “In a Better World”). On the rare occasions he directs as well, he goes for wacked-out black comedy, like 2003’s “The Green Butchers,” in which Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas played meat-vendors who turn to cannibalism. Maybe this is what Jensen does for a vacation.
Kaas is on hand in “Men & Chicken” as Gregor, the youngest, dumbest, and horniest of Gabriel and Elias’s new kin. The other two are Josef (Nicolas Bro), obese and cerebral, and Franz (Soren Malling), who’s more or less the Moe of the group and who likes to beat on his brothers with stuffed animals.
Where’s Poppa? Upstairs taken ill or maybe down in the basement laboratory, where Franz insists the others can’t go. And what’s up with that chicken with cow’s hooves instead of feet? “Men & Chicken” — a great title, but not as funny as the original Danish “Maend og hons” — has elements of old-dark-house thrillers and mad-scientist chillers, but Jensen pitches the film as a slapstick farce of family entropy, and he has an inclusive, puckish sense of style. You’ll either climb aboard the movie’s demented wavelength or you’ll run away screaming.
A real problem, especially in the early going, is that “Men & Chicken” keeps threatening to collapse into a freak show. Gabriel is the one nominally sane person here, and he does try to get his brothers to mend their devolved ways, but it’s a losing battle, for reasons that eventually become clear. The moral (if there is one) isn’t that man fights his inner beast at his peril. It’s that we’re beasts to start with.
MEN & CHICKEN
Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen. Starring Mads Mikklesen, David Dencik, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Søren Malling, Nicholas Bro. Kendall Square. 100 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, animal husbandry). In Danish, with subtitles.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.