Film Review – Another Round
Four guy friends – all high school teachers – gather for dinner to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of their own. The night begins regularly, with each of them engaging in idle chit chat. Things take a turn when we learn that all four share the same concern: that their lives have turned stale and boring. One of them mentions a famed Danish psychiatrist who once theorized that maintaining a blood alcohol content of 0.05% can help boost energy and creativity. Soon the booze starts flowing and inhibitions relax. What started out as a cordial dinner ends with the four men wrestling outdoors in a drunken stupor.
So begins the Danish film, Another Round (2020). Directed by Thomas Vinterberg (who co-writes with Tobias Lindholm), the story has familiar elements: the ever-changing views of masculinity during a mid-life crisis, working a dead end job versus living in the moment, the beauty (and stupidity) of male companionship, etc. These are not new concepts. But Vinterberg crafts his narrative with a fresh perspective, opting for a tragicomedy that doesn’t lean too far one way or the other. He doesn’t depict the act of drinking merely as a pathway toward disaster, nor does he ignore the dangers of it.
The writing and direction are paired with the excellent work of Vinterberg’s long-time collaborator, Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen is the kind of actor who can be placed in just about any role and appear as though it were tailor made for him. He can be a hero or a villain, show vulnerability, intimidation, strength, weakness – there isn’t much he can’t do. As the central character of Martin, Mikkelsen exudes a quiet instability. Martin is a history teacher that has lost his motivation to inspire his students. At home he has become detached from his wife and kids. When the idea of drinking comes up, Martin is the first to adopt it.
Eventually, the other three friends – Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), and Peter (Lars Ranthe) – join Martin in their self-made “experiment.” They set certain parameters: they must maintain a 0.05% BAC, no drinking at night, and so on. Almost immediately, their lives improve. Martin engages with his class in a way that holds their attention, Peter brings out the best from his music students, Tommy becomes more involved with the school’s soccer team, and Nikolaj learns to manage the stresses of his home life.
In a lesser film, this all could have easily fallen into slapstick, especially when the group starts to break their own rules. But Vinterberg grounds the narrative in realism. When Martin and the others slur their words or stumble around a room it isn’t not played for laughs. The comedy comes in how they pretend to treat their drinking as though it were some scientific study. The only times the realism is broken is when Vinterberg flashes a title card indicating the groups BAC level. At first, seeing “0.04%” or “0.05%” comes off as funny, but the chuckles disappear as we watch the numbers rapidly escalate.
There are no big surprises, and most lucid viewers can probably guess where things go as the group starts to lose control. But the predictability doesn’t dissipate how well the execution is. Vinterberg doesn’t sugarcoat the darker elements – he doesn’t allow the four main characters an escape when things start to fall apart. We see them at their highest moments as well as when they hit rock bottom. They are the makers of their own destinies, and Vinterberg forces them to confront the consequences of their actions, positive or negative.
Mikkelsen is so good here. He his funny, pathetic, intelligent, lost, and everything in between. He is also a shockingly agile physical performer. During a dance scene, Mikkelsen flips, spins and contorts his body in ways that would make Spider-Man jealous. And yet he never makes a false choice. As Martin, he is the centerpiece holding everything together. Martin is fully aware that the group is walking a tightrope and at any moment can slip off into the abyss but is incapable of doing anything about it. It’s as though he can see himself from an outsider’s perspective but can’t stop from taking another shot of liquor. After years of malaise both at home and at work, Martin chooses to drink as a way to feel something, anything. Mikkelsen keeps us glued to the character’s emotional rollercoaster while not seemingly having to do much at all. It’s one of the year’s best performances.
Another Round is dedicated to Vinterberg’s daughter, Ida, who was supposed to be play a role but tragically died in a car crash soon after filming began. Knowing that adds a layer of melancholy to the film, but it doesn’t make the viewing experience depressing. In fact, it plays as more life affirming than anything else. Our time here is limited, and one bad decision can make it all go away in an instant. In a way, Vinterberg is telling us to embrace the life we have, to love it, and to treat it with respect it deserves.