3 stars (out of 4)
Anders Thomas Jensen's "The Green Butchers" is a macabre, oddly gripping Danish dark comedy that introduces us to two small town butchers who unintentionally become murderers and then convert their unknowing customers to cannibalism. In addition, it follows the misadventures of twins, one a tormented killer, the other a brain-damaged, long-haired vegetarian who's just emerged from a coma.
Gruesome as it may sound, "Butchers" is a likeable, well-made film and a genuine comedy, closer to Knut Hamsun or Billy Wilder than to "Blood Feast" or "Sweeney Todd." Jensen, a longtime writer for Lars von Trier's Dogma 95 group and one of the best younger Danish screenwriters (his scripts include "Mifune," "The King is Alive" and "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself"), has a knack for balancing emotions, evoking everyday absurdity and creating believable characters. He's able to pull us into this depraved and evil little world, while keeping it human.
Perhaps that's because Jensen can actually imagine what believable people might do, snarled up in this web of slaughter. He also has two excellent actors: Mads Mikkelsen as butcher Svend, a tall guy with Chris Walken eyes, and Nikolaj Lie Kaas as both Svend's close-cropped, conscience-stricken assistant Bjarne and Bjarne's brain-damaged twin brother, long-haired Eigil. So expert is Mikkelsen that Svend's descent into murder seems almost sensible, at least in business terms. So brilliant is Kaas that you might watch much of this movie before realizing the twins were played by one actor.
"Butchers" commences with Svend and Bjarne as the discontented assistants of town butcher Holger (Ole Thestrup), a brutal boss renowned for his deer sausage. He tyrannizes and ridicules them, and fed up, the assistants open their own shop without adequate resources and only a marinade and sausage or two to compete with Holger. The process by which they become successful butchers and their rotund landlord "House Hans" (Nicolas Bo) becomes their first batch of gourmet chicken--an instant hit that quickly oustrips Holger's deer sausage--is ridiculous but logical. So is most of the rest of "Green Butchers."
You could compare "Butchers" to Paul Bartel's "Eating Raoul," since they share a certain cynicism, chutzpah and dark/light touch. But "Butchers" is the much better movie: It's smarter and better-acted and, odd as it may sound, more tasteful.
Kaas, the star of "Reconstruction," "The Idiots" and Jensen's previous two directorial efforts, is Denmark's most-awarded young actor. Mikkelsen is a deadly deadpan comedian. Line Kruse, as Bjarne's ladyfriend Astrid, is a sparkling ingenue. Jensen's direction is elegant, in an against-the-grain manner. Political correctness has been tossed in the ashcan. The movie, so skillfully crafted, is able to make madness plausible, absurdity real and the seemingly indigestible almost toothsome.
Jensen, who is a better writer than Von Trier--though not a better director--may be well on his way to becoming Denmark's second best all-around filmmaker. That may seem a funny prediction on the basis of a comedy about cannibalism, but this filmmaker has obvious gifts and a style that recalls his idol, Wilder. He knows how far to go with material that seems unmentionable and characters that seem unredeemable. More important, like Wilder, he knows what a bad joke most bourgeois movie good taste really is.
"The Green Butchers" ("De Gronne Slagtere")
Directed and written by Anders Thomas Jensen; photographed by Sebastian Blenkov; edited by Anders Villadsen; art director Mia Stensgaard; music by Jeppe Kaas; produced by Kim Magnusson, Tivi Magnusson. A Newmarket Films release; opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre. In Danish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1:35. No MPAA rating: R (for language, disturbing images and drug use).
Svend - Mads Mikkelsen
Bjarne/Eigil - Nikolaj Lie Kaas
Astrid - Line Kruse
Tina - Bodil Jorgensen
Holger - Ole Thestrup
Hus Hans - Nicolas Bro