One of the many sly jokes in writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen’s demented little family story is that it casts the most recognisable men in Danish film/TV and renders them hard to recognise by make-up (harelips, unusual facial hair and hairstyles, other deformities) and mannerism (they all display odd behavioural tics which are eventually explained).
Lecturer Gabriel (David Dencik) has to tell his brother Elias (Mad Mikkelsen) that their father has just died – and we see that Gabriel is long-suffering, with his life constantly disrupted by the attention-seeking, compulsively-masturbating, cheapskate monomaniac Elias, who is the sort of person who computer-dates a wheelchairbound psychotherapist so he can tell her about his recurring dream (which involves raping a bird-man who turns out to be his brother) without paying a fee. Elias seems an idiot, with a strange phobia about being interrupted, but odd remarks suggest that he’s not unintelligent and has flashes of insight. When they learn that the man who brought them up wasn’t their biological father, the siblings take a road trip to the tiny island where they were born and their hundred-year-old geneticist father supposedly still lives with their half-brothers Franz (Soren Malling), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Josef (Nicolas Bro). They seem like crossbreeds of the Three Stooges and Dr Moreau’s manimals, battering outsiders and each other with odd objects to settle arguments, bickering about who gets to eat off what plate, strangely obsessive about bedtime reading (Josef hilariously provides a rationalist commentary on the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible) and sharing a decaying mansion with livestock (some of which is similarly deformed).
It turns out that the only reason the brothers haven’t been institutionalised is that the Mayor is worried that if the island’s population falls below forty the government will take them off the map. Elias enters into the world of his brothers more easily than the almost-normal Gabriel (it’s an even slyer joke that without the makeup Dencik would be cast as the psycho-creep, as in The Absent One, and the others are handsome leading men), who keeps disobeying Franz’s orders not to look in father’s bedroom (where his corpse is preserved) and the cavernous basement (where he did his mad science work, which plainly had something to do with his sons’ many peculiarities). Withal, it’s not a horror film. Like Jensen’s cannibal comedy The Green Butchers, it’s a grotesque cartoon which uses horror tropes in a nightmare sit-com fashion … the gradual shifts of power and character within the brood, as some see the shaking-up of their way of life as a threat but others yearn for a change (or, at least, ‘girls’ – who arrive in unexpected form) and the threats of violence and confinement (there are punishment cages in the garden) constantly simmer.
Jensen has done a lot of mainstream work as a screenwriter, on Danish films (Mifune, Open Hearts) and international projects (The Duchess, The Dark Tower) but his films as director are uniquely twisted.