Who would have thought Mads Mikkelsen dancing around in an alcoholic La La Land to Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What a Life’ would become one of 2020’s seminal moments in cinema? But here we are, thanks to Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film Another Round (Druk) – a casual bright spot in an unforgiving year. And in re-teaming with Mads since their last, Oscar-nominated collaboration The Hunt, Another Round sees the director explore another facet of the human condition with intriguing results.
It’s hard to definitively characterise this weird, comedy-drama about four schoolteachers circumventing a mid-life crisis through a scientific experimentation with alcohol. Like Mads’ epic and euphoric dancing, it’s one of many tonal shifts it undertakes, blurring between the lines of joyous romp and melancholic consequences. Is it an outright condemnation on the reckless consumption of alcohol (as suggested by its hedonistic drinking game in its opening scene) or a plea to ‘drink in moderation’? Because Vinterburg plays with those extreme dynamics so well, you could almost accuse the film being drunk itself!
But comedy/drama is a loose term under Vinterburg’s scrutiny, functioning more like a complex life drama, where characters compensate their mundane lives for pseudo quick fixes that make them feel alive. His eye-opening fascination often plays ‘too close to home’, tapping into snapshots of drunken escapades that feels all too familiar as a viewer. And in a world saturated in drinking culture (specifically Danish drinking culture), Vinterberg’s film is primed to the details with its permanent linger over its alcoholic concoctions. As we’re introduced to Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Peter (Lars Ranthe) celebrating Nikolaj’s (Magnus Millang) 40th birthday at a lavish restaurant, the waiter describes the wine and champagnes selections like an expertly refined sonnet. The cocktail the men make – made with fruity delicacy and hard liquor specifics – is like pouring gasoline over an open fire as it symbolises its shift towards its pinnacle third act. In Vinterburg’s sphere, the whole world has a drinking problem, given the clip reel of world leaders looking inebriated within the offices of power. It’s even willing to drag Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill in the firing line for their antics. And underpinning its exploits is an examination of how our obsessive drinking habits can become a slow, crippling, and self-destructive descent towards addiction.
The experiment itself – the immature and reckless idea based on the claims of a Norwegian philosopher (Finn Skårderud) that humans are born with a blood alcohol content that 0.05% too low – is a test of that theory, where the friends document its effects for scientific research. It explains the weird sensation the film undertakes. Vinterburg and his editing team of Janus Billeskov Jansen and Anne Østerud make artistic switches where Nikolaj’s findings are visually translated as white text on a black slate, adding to the film’s dramatic pauses and quiet increases of intoxicating tension.
And in doing so, Another Round takes some wild, ambitious swings in its adventure, unsure how to feel about its exploits as a viewer. It swims in an endless sea of contradictions and lack of moral ambiguity. In one shocking scene which would probably send schoolteachers into a raging fit, Peter encourages a nervous student to start drinking, in the hopes that it would calm his nerves before taking an important (and life-changing) exam.
At times, its depiction of alcoholism is too joyous, too much of an exuberant excuse for their boozy antics, yet you find yourself laughing out loud. Other times, you’re compelled by the commitment of its ‘scientific’ premise, never shying from the unabashed awkwardness and impending fear as middle-aged men gradually push themselves toward drinking oblivion. Vinterburg and Tobias Lindholm’s script enjoys placing its audience in these insecure, grey areas positions, and its brilliance operates as a non-judgemental medium, being acutely aware of the conversations that drive it.
And true to Vinterberg’s style, Another Round does not make these conversations easy. Like some alcoholic fever dream, this is an ultimate tale of tragedy amongst friends, believing life’s ‘second wind’ is at the end of a bottle and unable to deal with the conventions of time and youth that slipped away from them. The irresponsibility is predictable, threatening their careers, marriages, and social responsibilities. And when the film finally decides to ‘sober-up’ and overcome its hangover, through Mads – impeccable as always – we begin to see the spectrum effects of his alcoholism.
Transitioning between an empty shell to a beer google individual, Mads’ becomes the film’s litmus test of morals where he grows to understand that drink will not solve his failing marriage or his distant relationship with his sons. These were cracks that appeared long before it entered his life. In his best role in years, Mads’ performance conveys joy yet empathy. You chastise him for his recklessness but enjoy the sincerity he brings to the role, learning the hard way of his troubles.
Under the guise of any other director, Another Round could easily have been a disastrous, executed concept, leaving its deft examination and audience with the wrong messages. It’s not always a flawless execution, often riding a thin line in encapsulating that struggle. For some, that will be the inevitable turnoff in how it manages the complexity of its subject. But, if Vinterberg’s argument about life being an intricate balance – a celebration of the highs and lows as illustrated by Mads’ jazz dancing finale, that notion shines through. It’s not as hard-hitting as The Hunt, but in deceptive fashion, Vinterberg has created an unconventional crowd pleaser.
ANOTHER ROUND (DRUK) screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out in UK cinemas 20th November 2020.