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Witty 'Butchers' takes stab at cannibalism

There have been many entrees in the cinema of cannibalism over the years. They include ''Eating Raoul," ''Alive," ''Delicatessen," ''Motel Hell," ''The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," and ''The Silence of the Lambs," with an honorable mention given to the many iterations of ''Sweeney Todd" (including a version of the Stephen Sondheim musical that director Sam Mendes may yet film).

In this company, ''The Green Butchers" is neither rare nor particularly well done. If you're looking for Danish meatballs served on dark wry, though, you could do worse.

A ghoulishly dry character comedy set in small-town Denmark, ''Butchers" concerns the efforts of two locals to open their own butcher shop. Neither man inspires much confidence. Backroom meat-cutter Bjarne (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is an intelligent but thuggishly antisocial layabout who collects animal skeletons and smokes dope around the clock (it's Denmark, remember, so no one cares).

He has a twin, Eigil (also Kaas), lying comatose in a nearby hospital after a car accident; not only does Bjarne appear to lack the requisite brotherly love, he's happy to cut Eigil loose for organ harvesting and a chance to get at the family money to bankroll the shop.

While Bjarne's partner appears normal by comparison, he's anything but. A tightly wound control freak, Svend (Mads Mikkelsen) sweats more than a butcher probably should, wears his hair in an odd bouffant, and has zero social skills. After his fiance (Bodil Jorgensen) dumps him the night before the shop's grand opening, Svend protests, ''It's barbecue season -- this is no time to break up."

Forgetfulness and an off-the-books electrician working in the meat freezer conspire to present the partners with a corpse on their opening day. Svend panics and does what any irrational man would under the circumstances: He cuts up the body and sells it as marinated flank steak.

Before long, the line stretches out the door, TV crews are descending, and fresh supplies must be located. Maybe Sondheim used ''Sweeney Todd" to springboard to the larger issue of ''man devouring man," but writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen sets his sights lower: ''The Green Butchers" is genteel splatter farce, in which everything that could go wrong does. It's like an ''I Love Lucy" episode with chain saws.

In the film's second half, though, Jensen nicely ratchets up the complications. (Attention: plot spoilers ahead.) Bjarne, who's really not so bad once you discover the skeletons in his closet, meets Astrid (Line Kruse), a caretaker at the cemetery where his parents are buried. It's love at first death. Unfortunately, since Astrid's aged priest boss had the bad luck many years ago to eat his newlywed wife after a plane crash in the mountains, he finds that the meatballs Svend and Bjarne are selling taste oddly familiar.

In one final, impressively tasteless turn, ''Green Butchers" introduces Eigil, freshly awoken from his coma and, it turns out, possessed of the mental age of a toddler and the surliness to match. He arrives one morning at the butcher shop, clutching a worn giraffe doll and screaming loudly for Bjarne, quickly becoming the random element in Jensen's precisely worked-out plot. At this point, the movie becomes a tour de force for actor Kaas, who tackles these very different twins with relish.

Handsomely shot and much less gory than it could and probably should be, ''Green Butchers" ultimately boxes itself into a corner, with a climax that's satisfying but undernourishing. Foreign film fans may remember Mikkelsen from last year's ''Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" and ''Open Hearts" (in which Kaas also appeared), and the usually handsome actor revels in the chance to display a galumphing comic nerdiness.

''I'm very well aware that I'm not a charming person," Svend mopes at one point, but he doesn't have to be. ''Green Butchers" has piquantly grisly charms of its own. In the end, though, it's much ado about mutton.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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