This is 40: Seated together at an ostentatiously bourgeois restaurant in Copenhagen to celebrate their pal’s landmark birthday, a group of high school teachers begin trading tales of midlife crisis. The common denominator between them is a feeling that something’s missing. They’re older, not wiser; coupled, but lonely; materially richer, but impoverished in spirit. The saddest sack of all is Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a once-brilliant instructor whose students regard him with a bored, half-lidded sleepiness—the same expression he gets from his wife and children as he stares into the distance at dinner. At home and work, Martin’s eyes are glazed. Now, reluctantly but gratefully pouring his heart out with the boys, his eyes glisten with tears. Maybe it’s the wine.
Or the cocktails, or the vodka: This is an evening of serious drinking (This is 40 Proof). It’s also the launching pad for these formerly wild and crazy guys to try out a wild and crazy scheme hatched by Birthday Boy Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), the most talkative and voluble member of the quartet. He cites a psychological theory—discovered, like all good things, on the internet—that human beings are born with a blood alcohol level that’s a couple of fractions of a percent too low. By this logic, booze is a nutrient; what would typically (and legally) be considered intoxication is actually a state of grace. Could it be that getting fucked up might actually be a good way to get stuff done? For Martin, bumping up against the limits of his own misery (and mortality), it’s worth a shot—as many as it takes to achieve a feeling of punch-drunk love.
The most predictable thing about Thomas Vinterberg’s acclaimed new drama Another Round is that this plan—which is eagerly adopted by Nikolaj and Martin, as well by craggy gym teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and straitlaced Peter (Lars Ranthe)—goes awry. What makes the film, which has been selected as Denmark’s Oscar submission, so effective is how it leans into this sense of inevitability. Instead of trying for suspense, Vinterberg cultivates a sense of ambient dread mixed with denial—the precise headspace of the Saturday night binge drinker who refuses to imagine the Sunday morning comedown. It’s clear that what Martin and his friends are really yearning for is not drunkenness, but the heady excitement and sense of indestructibility embedded in adolescence. (A prologue showing a group of students on a summertime bender makes the link explicit, as does the high-school backdrop). More than anything, Vinterberg’s film is a coming-of-age fable in reverse, defined in equal measures by merriment and melancholy. And when these potent elements are mixed correctly, the effect is intoxicating.
There is some wonderful ensemble interplay in Another Round, whose four stars shared a Best Actor prize at the San Sebastián Film Festival. The main point of entry for most American viewers, however, will be Mikkelsen, whose signature sociopathic roles in Casino Royale as Le Chiffre and as the title character on Hannibal have turned him into one of the most uniquely memeable actors around. (See also: his all-time reaction shot as a member of the 2014 Cannes Competition Jury, which is a go-to for expressing astonishment and disgust on Film Twitter.) The key to Mikkelsen’s uncanny affect is an off-center handsomeness that can easily be tweaked into grotesquerie, especially in Hannibal, when he found a way to make viewers forget (or at least briefly repress) Anthony Hopkins’s Silence of the Lambs performance by making Dr. Lecter so cooly ghoulish. In 2016, an entire article on Inverse was devoted to the “psychology of why Mads Mikkelsen looks so fucking evil,” and described him as “having the face of a gentleman child strangler.”
His mouth and eyebrows, when they’re visible, are flat. What do we make of his lack of expression? Is he about to grin in delight, or glower darkly? He’s especially sinister because he’s so hard to grasp.
In 2012, Vinterberg directed his countryman to a Best Actor prize at Cannes for the psychological drama The Hunt, which starred Mikkelsen as a small-town teacher baselessly accused of molesting a student. The story pivoted on the villainous possibilities suggested by the actor’s tight-lipped stoicism; we know he’s innocent, but we understand why the other characters aren’t so sure. Few actors are so reliably untrustworthy. Mikkelsen also has the lean, physical charisma of an action star, which is how another fellow Dane, Nicolas Winding Refn—whose crossover success with Drive puts him one up on Vinterberg in terms of American visibility—has tended to use him, both in the urban-thriller trilogy Pusher and the gory Viking epic Valhalla Rising. In the latter, a crazed mythic grandeur was anchored to Mikkelsen’s brooding, brutal, mostly wordless performance.
Mikkelsen has popped up in well-compensated special-guest villain roles—including franchise gigs in Doctor Strange and Rogue One—and reaped the rewards of his formerly niche weirdness. He genuinely seems to enjoy playing creeps. He was cast as Rihanna’s restrained victim in the torture-porn-ish music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” and he took his lumps like a champ. “I have a soft spot for ‘Bitch Better Have My Money,’” the actor told Shortlist. “Because, after all, I am the bitch.”
Another Round may be Mikkelsen’s best leading performance to date, surpassing his work in The Hunt. In that film, Vinterberg was trying to make broad, obvious points about society’s need for scapegoats, and Mikkelsen’s acting was trapped inside a deterministic framework. Another Road is not about themes, but characters. Martin compels our attention both as an archetype—the onetime whiz kid gone to seed—and an idiosyncratic individual who’s been built by the actor from the inside out. It’s mentioned early on that Martin has a background in dance, and while that bit of backstory is on one level an obvious bit of narrative setup—call it Chekhov’s Jazz Hands—it also informs the odd gracefulness of Mikkelsen’s acting whenever Martin is blotto, the way his wobbliness always seems somehow sure-footed. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Martin, who starts clandestinely bringing a flask to class, conducts a thought experiment with his history students, building to a punch line involving Adolf Hitler; the reaction shots of the kids cracking up feel a bit forced in a Dead Poets Society type of way, but the actor’s ability to convey both intellectual calculation and tipsy abandon, each heightening rather than canceling out the other, is extraordinary.
Vinterberg made his name in 1998 with the Dogme-95 production The Celebration, a classic of queasy, handheld minimalism about a family reunion that explodes into chaos after an unexpected revelation; as with The Hunt, he’s interested in excavating the raging, hypocritical impulses hidden beneath placid surfaces. There’s definitely some of that eruptive emotion in Another Round, whose central quartet all come to terms—in different ways and with wildly different outcomes—with their own relationships to a culture of repression. In terms of structure, Another Round isn’t all that different from a number of other dramas about addictive, self-destructive compulsions, but the trajectory signifies differently in a deceptively self-effacing Scandinavian context. At one point, the script refers to the fact that alcoholism is rampant in Denmark, a detail that makes Martin and his friends feel like something other than outliers. If their experiment is excessive, it’s by only degrees; the script’s endless references to percentages (with Martin purchasing his own private breathalyzer to help precisely regulate his intake) suggest an attempt to quantify, and in doing so, rationalize, some dangerous innate behaviors.
It may be that Another Round is a bit too pushy for its own good: If Wayne’s World hadn’t already taken “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl” as a tagline, it’d apply nicely to Vinterberg’s button-pushing sensibility. He wants this story about men seeking out a comfortable numbness to make us feel something, and sometimes the effect is off by a few percentage points—the alchemy of melodrama is a tricky thing. Mikkelsen carries the movie to the finish line, at which point Vinterberg obliges him with the cinematic equivalent of a victory lap. Chances are, it’s Mikkelsen’s final scene that the movie will be remembered for (no spoilers, though you can read a detailed breakdown here). It’s a genuinely triumphant moment: Mads wins this Round.