The beginning and ending of Another Round are very strong. Thomas Vinterberg’s portrait of an alcoholic culture is quite effective at varying its tone — demonstrating the highs as well as the lows of using drink as a mood enhancer.
The film’s opener is a depiction of a secondary school tradition — a team race around a lake with mandated drinking at each checkpoint. The friends who participate in it grow up to be teachers at the school and witness their own students acquire the habits of drink.
American films about alcoholism and drug addiction (of which there is no shortage) tend to be focused on individuals and a bit more linear. By presenting the dependence on alcohol as being pervasive throughout the culture, Vinterberg avoids the obvious beats of a cautionary tales.
In fact, Another Round is at its best when it is showing the (temporary) positive effects of alcohol. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) reconnects with his wife on a camping trip. A student crippled by anxiety is able to pass a difficult exam. For moments, it seems as though rationalizations can and will carry the day, but then there are the inevitable consequences: fights, employment issues, increasingly risky behavior.
The one place the film misfires is in making the second act about the friends’ experiment. They are ostensibly following a study that man has a blood alcohol deficit and actually functions better when that count is elevated. Perhaps this is just an excuse to let slip the bonds of propriety, but it distracts slightly from the film’s ability to show alcohol’s real allure. It is a distraction from the disappointments and fears of middle age.
I would argue that the film’s ambivalence (and that of the culture it depicts) is less about hedonism and more about numbed sadness. It’s not that the characters undersell the hangovers and regressive effects of binge drinking — one gets so sloshed he ends up peeing the bed like the infant son he has chastised early in the film. It’s just that they are skeptical of the ability of any sober experience or relationship to give their lives meaning.
That’s what makes the film’s final act so heartbreaking. We are used to one of two endings for such tales: tragic self-destruction or costly self-realization. Another Round captures the moments before an alcoholic loses all control but after he has lost the ability to stop. This is probably the most painful part of the process because there is self-awareness. Also, since Martin and his friends are teachers and parents, there is a muted but still evident tinge of shame and desperation in the knowledge that they are passing on their weaknesses (in the form of traditions) to the generation they are supposed to protect and help.
All of that probably makes the film sound depressing. It is, but that depression is more rooted in sadness and pain than in existential angst or depravity. In its way, it is one of the best films about alcoholism I’ve seen, because it doesn’t present those who suffer as being particularly depraved, stupid, or weak. It doesn’t blame the environment for causing the choices of the addict, but it does help us to understand how it contributes to the pain and longing that prompts those choices.