Filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg and actor Mads Mikkelsen struck gold with 2012’s “The Hunt”, a searing drama about a man wrongfully accused of sexually abusing a child and the hysteria that engulfs a small close-knit community as a result. The two team-up again for “Another Round”, an absorbing character study about middle-aged disillusionment and another home-run for the Danish duo.
A large part of the film was shaped by a personal tragedy. The movie was original set to star Vinterberg’s 19-year-old daughter Ida. But just four days into filming Ida was killed in a car accident. Utterly devastated but determined to make his movie in honor of his daughter, Vinterberg reworked the script with co-writer Tobias Lindholm and made what is “Another Round”. Vinterberg’s goal was to change it to something “life-affirming”, but you can’t miss the undercurrent of sadness that’s felt from the film’s pre-title montage to its exhilarating yet heartbreaking final scene.
Mikkelsen has always been an actor able to root out the inner complexities and conflicts of his characters. Here he is magnificent playing a high school history teacher named Martin. Mikkselsen’s emotionally detailed performance reveals a detached man, his eyes lightless, melancholy etched into every expression. Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, stuck in a mire of unfulfillment and uncertainty. “I don’t know how I ended up like this,” he laments. He’s lost his fire both at school and at home. His grades-conscious students notice it, even putting together an intervention of sorts. His wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie) also notices and is constantly taking on night shifts at work (you get the sense it’s to get away from her husband).
One evening Martin and fellow teachers Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Peter (Lars Ranthe) attend a birthday dinner for friend and colleague Nikolaj (Magnus Millang). After some needling Martin agrees to join them for some light drinking. As the four begin loosening up Nikolaj shares a hypothesis from Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderund. His idea was that the blood alcohol content in humans is 0.05% too low and that light day drinking would lead to “increased social and professional performance.” Martin has reached a point where he’s willing to try anything so the four decide to test Skårderund’s theory.
First they set the rules for their cockeyed social experiment. It would consist of daily alcohol consumption maintaining but not exceeding 0.05% BAC. There would be no drinking after 8:00 PM and none on weekends. Throughout the ‘experiment’ each would take notes and report back with the results. Their sets of rules and procedures attempt to give it all a sense of legitimacy, but it’s clear each are trying to fill holes in their individual lives. For a desperate Martin it’s about being able to feel again; about finding the zest for life he once had. It’s about rekindling the relationship with his wife and rediscovering his enthusiasm for the classroom. In other words, for Martin it’s about living again.
It’s really a nutty premise, the kind Hollywood is almost certain to remake and probably botch. But it works here because Vinterberg isn’t as enthralled with the concept as much as he is the people involved. Even when the movie ventures into black comedy territory, Vinterberg’s focus is set firmly on Martin and the other characters. And as silly as the concept sounds, it opens up the characters in a number of surprisingly intimate ways, allowing us to see deeper inside them. This is where the acting shines brightest, especially from Mikkelsen who gives a subdued yet full-bodied performance that can be darkly funny but that is undergirded with an unshakable sense of tragedy.
Interestingly (and wisely) Vinterberg doesn’t judge the four men or their actions. In fact he even hints that there may be some truth to Skårderund’s wild theory after the buzzed teachers begin seeing success both at work and at home (I guess there are reasons for the nicknames “spirits” and “liquid courage”). Also the experiment brings the friends closer together than they’ve ever been. At the same time Vinterberg subtly reminds us that the potential consequences, both personal and professional, are enormous. This becomes even clearer when the four begin stretching their own rules by increasing their daily intake. We know they’re in a precarious position and the tightrope they’re walking could snap at any moment.
I’m still astonished by how effectively Vinterberg brings all of his parts together to make something playful yet perilous; something that sounds absurd but ends up being as captivating as it is provocative. And despite its smattering of dark humor, you can’t miss the elements of Vinterberg’s real-life personal anguish that permeates scene after scene. And what better actor to soulfully channel it than Mads Mikkelsen who (here I go again) gives what’s easily one of the year’s best performances.
For the most part there isn’t a lot of variety when it comes to movies strictly about drinking alcohol. There are your care-free party movies full of boozing but often free of consequences and repercussions. The others are usually sad somber tales of people languishing in the grip of alcoholism. “Another Round” nimbly finds its place somewhere in the middle. It fully acknowledges the pleasures and appeal of drinking for some people. At the same time the film shows that the gap between social drinking and dependency can close quicker than you think. And while a couple of glasses of wine may loosen you up, it’s no cure for deep-seated psychological pain. And in the end that pain is what “Another Round” is most interested in exploring.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS