REVIEW OF THE GREEN BUTCHERS
Shall I be the only dissenting voice? I wish I could say I love this film. But I think like is a better descriptor. Writer/Director Anders Thomas Jensen is a fine writer but like many writers I wonder if he approached this screenplay with equal parts heart and head. Full of great performances and deft touches The Green Butchers still feels more like chuck roast than prime rib.
THE GREEN BUTCHERS
Dir Anders Thomas Jensen
100 min Rated R for language, disturbing images and drug use.
Danish with English Subtitles
A reviewer knows he’s in trouble when he turns to the person next to him afterwards and says “Weird flick.” Do I think The Green Butchers will entertain and enlighten the average viewer? I suppose that depends on the average viewer's ability to suspend disbelief in favor of the way the film presents its central question: what are we willing to do to be loved and respected?
Svend and Bjarne are likeable enough guys even considering Bjarne’s lack of motivation and Svend’s incessant sweating and desperate need for affirmation. Sick of their nasty mean-spirited boss, the quirky pair decides to open their own butcher shop. But their high hopes are dashed by a lack of customers until, that is, an accident provides them with a new product that their customers just can’t get enough of. Soon despite Bjarne’s objections Svend is making sure that they don’t run out of raw material.
I’m not really spoiling anything to tell you that this movie involves cannibalism. Now I’m all in favor of cinematic ghoularie. It’s been used to stupendous effect in drama (Alive!), musicals (Sweeney Todd), and horror movies (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). There’s absolutely no reason it couldn’t have been put to better use here.
My biggest problem with this otherwise entertaining and thoughtful film is that it’s central situation is stretched too thin. There just isn’t enough to the film to compel us. The film delivers neither shocks, nor whimsy, laughs nor tears. Instead we get a too quiet piece that could be interpreted as social satire, ie: society devouring itself yet comes across as a true crime film with the barest touches of humor. A comparison could be made to the marvelous Delicatessen, which offered black comedy and pathos in equal measure. Jensen provides atmosphere of a kind for his film but has the characters doing things and making choices that don’t make sense, or compel us to care about them, in a world as realistically depicted as he has chosen to depict his.
The two leads are fine in their roles. Mads Mikkelsen plays the homicidal and ever sweating Svend with just the right touch of alternately repulsive and endearing neediness. Nikolaj Lie Kaas skillfully juggles his dual roles as the pot-smoking do-nothing Bjarne and his brain damaged animal loving brother Eigel. But when a film asks us to care for a character who does despicable things it provides a reason for us to root for them. Here we’re not given much. Is Bjarne’s habit of kicking people who ask silly questions in the shins somehow endearing? And what differentiates Svend from any other serial killer? If we are meant to take his actions metaphorically, which I think Jensen clearly intends, what about the mis ‘en scene helps us to suspend our disbelief?
There are other characters and situations which I won’t reveal. Suffice to say that a number of people die in this film simply because they are overweight and thus will provide us with the opportunity to laugh with impunity. Others die for reasons that will only be apparent to someone who watches the films without emotional engagement. You cannot care for Svend and Bjarne without being appalled, and you cannot care for the victims because Jensen is always cuing you to care for his quirky killers. The irony isn’t lost on me. I understand it’s Jensen’s intent to reflect on society as a whole. By asking us to like this pair he’s really asking us to consider why we all take part in this consumeristic feeding frenzy.
Writer Jensen is best known for his part in launching the Dogma movement. He was writer of the wonderful King is Alive, a film which adhered to the groups strict manifesto regarding how films could be made. In the notes Jensen says he could not have made the movie in that realistic a style but in truth his movie is too realistic and might be more compelling were he to have interpreted the script through some of the dogma criterion.
In the end The Green Butchers certainly doesn’t bore but I stick by my reaction immediately following the screening, “Weird Flick.” Too bad it wasn’t also funnier, more chilling or more fablesque.