It’s a rare film that can pair biblical discussion with frequent jokes about masturbation and poultry rape, but that’s exactly the balance Anders Thomas Jensen’s Men and Chicken (2015) manages to achieve. Biblical references play a significant role in the film, especially through the names of its two central characters, Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen).
Early in the film, Gabriel and Elias travel to a destitute island town in search of their biological father. Arriving at his home, a dilapidated sanatorium full of livestock and farm animals, they instead find a collection of new half-brothers, Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Franz (Soren Malling), and Josef (Nicolas Bro). The brothers don’t welcome Gabriel and Elias with open arms; instead they assault them with taxidermied animals and abnormally large pots. Eventually the two work their way inside, where hijinks and philosophy ensue.
According to Jensen, the names of Gregor, Franz, and Josef allude to Franz Kafka and his two well-known literary protagonists (Josef K and Gregor Samsa). But Gabriel and Elias are both biblical names. Gabriel, the angel who serves as a messenger from God, is an apt namesake for the character in Men and Chicken.
There’s a basic religious undertone to Gabriel’s entire existence. Like the angel Gabriel -- who is seen as a revealer and interpretator of visions in the Book of Daniel, as well as a messenger of good news in the Gospel of Luke when he announces the future birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary -- Men and Chicken’s Gabriel represents the search for meaning throughout the film. Early in his relationship with the newly-discovered brothers, he mentions that his one published book is about the human struggle to find answers, whether from science, philosophy, or God. He claims this is the one underlying desire of all humans, while Franz doesn’t seem to grasp what Gabriel is talking about. This reaction foreshadows the film’s ending, but it is also points to Gabriel's status as a messenger whose word is not well-understood. (The Kafka-inspired names of the half-brothers also signal that, like Kafka's characters and unlike Gabriel, they live in a world whose meaning is impossible to grasp, if it exists at all.)
Once the film dispels the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the brothers’ father, Gabriel takes it upon himself to attempt to bring order and morality to his animalistic half-family members. A university professor of philosophy and a published author, he’s the only educated member of the bunch. In one scene, he brings a bible into the house, gathering everyone into a reading circle and telling them the story of Abraham and Isaac. Instead of understanding the parable’s moral lesson, Josef thinks Abraham was mentally ill and goes off on a tangent about insanity, while the other brothers only respond to the death of the goat sacrificed in Isaac’s place. Via Gabriel's attempt to enlighten and inform his brothers about the nature of the divine, the film draws a parallel between Gabriel and the bible’s symbolic messenger but with the important difference that, here, Gabriel's listeners are unwiling or unable to understand his message. Gabriel's role as the revealer continues throughout the film -- it is Gabriel who eventually uncovers the mystery of the brothers’ true parentage.
As his influence over the family grows, so does Franz’s resentment of Gabriel’s attempt to change their way of life. Just as the angel Gabriel also shares dark prophecies of destruction with Daniel, Men and Chicken’s Gabriel does not only bring good news. His role also has a destructive aspect -- the knowledge he reveals will put an end to the brothers' existing lifestyle. Revelation, in this way, can be disruptive and painful, especially if it is not what we want to hear.
Gabriel's brother, too, shares the name of a messianic figure form the bible: Elias is a variant of Elijah, the name of the Hebrew prophet of the Old Testament. Looking back to the beginning of the picture, when Gabriel and Elias watch a VHS tape and discover the truth about their parentage, Elias' name takes on additional weight, as we start to see him as the film's prophet. Finding out that the man they thought was their father actually wasn't their biological dad has a strong impact on Gabriel, but Elias more or less dismisses the news. "We're still brothers," he says. "We still have the same dad."
As the film concludes, those two prophetic sentences sum up the core of Men and Chicken's sentiment -- family is family, no matter how ridiculously it might have been assembled.