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STUDIO: Oscilloscope Laboratories
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
TV News piece
The Danes get a little Polish (Polanski that is).
Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia
Director: Henrik Ruben Genz
We are in Denmark, but the set-up feels as American as apple pie. A big city policeman – Copenhagen being the city, Robert (Jakob Cedergren) being the policeman – is relocated to the quirky bumblefuck cowtown of Skarrild as punishment. The sleepy town is populated with an array of apathetic weirdos, who seem to think very little of the fact that residents of their sleepy town will randomly disappear now and then, never to return. Despite his best efforts to lie low until he can be re-assigned back to Copenhagen, Robert immediately gets roped into an awkward triangle between the town’s floozy, Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), and her dangerous husband, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia).
Terribly Happy skirts a delicate line. Throughout the film there is a real danger of it swerving into the tiresome mire of a typical quirky-small-town Twin Peaks wannabe, but director Genz always manages to turn into the skid and keep things going, never really surprising you with where he takes the film, but never really disappointing either. The film doesn’t do anything particularly original – some beats you can see coming a mile away – yet none of it feels stale by any measure. In fact, Terribly Happy is a great ride.
This is basically Hot Fuzz by way of Polanski’s The Tenant, with Robert replacing the previous constable who mysteriously vanished, even leaving behind his cat, which Robert now is expected to look after. The town is a mystery, as to be expected, but unlike Hot Fuzz, our hero is a mystery too. We know Robert has been sent to Skarrild because of something that happened in Copenhagen, something bad, but we don’t know what. He calls to talk to his daughter, but his wife won’t let him speak to her, but we don’t know why. One of the first things Robert does when he gets to Skarrild is dump his prescription pills into the toilet. The moment feels like a man shaking off a bad habit, a man who is triumphantly saying, “I don’t need these anymore. This is a fresh start.” That’s the glass half-full interpretation, at least. But we also don’t know what the pills were or why he was taking them, so there is subtle shading to the moment. Did he need those pills? Was this a guy going off important meds? If you view this moment as more than just the fleeting character bit it is presented as (mixed in with him unpacking and brushing his teeth), the movie will unfold in a slightly different light.
The town is certainly full of its expected quirks. There is a little girl who pushes her stroller around the empty streets at night. The bike shop owner has disappeared, yet no one seems to care. Robert learns from the convenience store owner that he is expected to slap the kids who get busted for shoplifting. And there is a watery bog just outside of town that has a half-sunk truck in it.
A Danish high-five.
This bog is the thematic heart of the Terribly Happy. At the top of the film we are told a legend concerning the bog: long, long ago a cow sank into the bog, when it was retrieved with chains it was now pregnant. It gave birth to a two-headed calf – one of the heads being human. The town was then plagued with horrible luck. So finally one day they cast the cow back into the bog and all their troubles ended. This story represents the town’s mentality. They solve their problems themselves. Robert and his predecessors are just figureheads sent by the county (or whatever they’re called in Denmark). The bog’s symbolism pervades the film. Much is made of the muddy terrain of Skarrild. The first thing that happens to Robert when he arrives in town is he steps into the mud. They tell him he needs galoshes. He must adapt. The mud becomes symbolic of Robert’s slow quicksand-like consumption by the town. The more he tries to fight the town’s ways, the more he gets irreversibly sucked in.
The film also has a bit of Coen Bros to it, in particular Blood Simple.
Like a Coen film, part of the ride here is the various twists and turns
the story takes, so I’m not going to reveal anything else.
Genz has a very sure hand as a filmmaker. Compositionally, the work he and cinematographer Jørgen Johansson do is the backbone of the film. Much like the Coen’s made the frosty wastes of Minnesota and North Dakota its own character in Fargo, Genz and Johansson turn the marshy wastes of Jutland into its own character here. Beyond this Genz also has a nice easy touch for tension. Probably the one moment anyone who sees this film will walk away remembering is a great tell-tale heart riff where a police officer from a neighboring town is poking around inside a house and keeps stepping on a mostly cleaned up puddle of blood – each time the officer shifts his weight blood briefly seeps through the carpet, then gets sucked back down before he spots anything; all while another character anxiously watches, expecting to get busted. (The blood rising from the carpet is yet another part of the bog leitmotif.)
The performances are all nice, though not stellar. Jakob Cedergren does a solid job of carrying the film. His Robert is supposed to be a bit of a dull blank at the beginning, and Cedergen’s performance becomes more interesting as Robert starts falling apart. The only real stand-out, acting-wise, is Kim Bodnia as the abusive local tough, Jorgen. Bodina just exudes casual menace, and Genz wrings him for all he’s worth. Every time he’s on camera things get uncomfortable. Terribly Happy has one of the weirdest, best drinking competition scenes I’ve ever seen, where Jorgen passive-aggressively duels Robert with alcohol. Then Bodina sizzles in a bathroom confrontation afterward.
Kaare Bjerkø’s score is quite excellent too. At the top of the film, when things are still at their most Hot Fuzzish, the score is slim and fun, consisting of just electric guitar and piano. Then as things get more Polanski, the fun gives way to intense percussion and pounding horns.
Like I said up top, unless you haven’t seen many neo-noir films or quirky-small-town dark comedies, Terribly Happy isn’t going to blow your socks off. But I think you will have a good time, and you’ll see a filmmaker that is well-deserving of keeping an eye on. Plus, the film is available on Netflix Instant Watch – boom.
The film looks and sound top notch. Also comes in snazzy, foldout Earth-friendly cardboard case. Breezy, informative commentary with adorable Danish accents. Some TV related material that shows you that Scandinavians are just as weird as you think they are. Highlight probably being when author Erling Jepsen (film based on his book) repeatedly smacks Genz in the face during an alcohol fueled TV interview.