A nearly surreal Scandinavian crime thriller with noirish shades of a Stockholm syndrome kicking in, Terribly Happy tracks the misfortunes of a mentally disintegrating Copenhagen cop banished as punishment to a remote hamlet, lying on the border somewhere between the boondocks and the Twilight Zone. A mix of psychological murkiness and creepy delight, the film excels at pregnant silences, while keeping audiences as disoriented and yet as obsessed with what may or may not exist just beyond the narrative bend, as the besieged protagonist in question.
Combining glum internalized Nordic sensibilities with masterfully reinvented elements of brash classic US westerns, Terribly Happy is deliciously nasty and likewise laced with subtle double entrendre wit, if anything. This, as the combo mischievous and malevolent tale follows the increasingly twisted escapades of Robert (Jakob Cedergren), rural Skarrild’s reluctant new big city marshal in exile for as yet unrevealed infractions.
Setting the tone and malicious local flavor from the start is a voiceover yarn detailing the hamlet’s folk legend about a cow who once sunk into their notorious bog and vanished, later surfacing and giving birth to a two headed calf, one of them a human head. And when the creature got mad cow disease, the farmer kept it anyway, causing all the local women to lose their unborn children and their minds. Of course this is just the beginning of the marshal’s macabre ordeal, involving countryside loons but no spaceships.
Robert arrives in town lugging his damaged past with him, and packing sedatives and a broken heart. And soon finds himself spurned by the deeply suspicious denizens engaged in perpetual poker at what passes for a Scandinavian saloon; seduced by a possibly battered desperate housewife married to the resident bully, who implores Robert to take her away from all “the mud, cows and rubber boots” while her dazed young daughter inexplicably wheels a baby carriage around town all day; and ineffectively rescues kid shoplifters locked away in a storage closet by the proprietor in what seems like the sole 7-Eleven in the vicinity. Then there’s the not so kindly village doctor who repeatedly meddles in police affairs, while getting high on his stash of prescription meds with his patients, and listening to what may be the Danish version of acid rock. And while Robert ends up barfing with grief beside the aforementioned mysterious bog, the apparent lunatics have taken over the town, to say the least.
Directed by Henrik Ruben Genz and adapted from the novel by Erling Jepsen, the decidedly oxymoronic Terribly Happy is laden with sinister imagination, and evidently the opposite of anything Hans Christian Andersen may have had in mind way back when. And, at the same time likely referencing today the more recent dark, divisive right wing, anti-immigrant shift of traditionally liberal Scandinavia. Terribly Happy, an exceedingly bitter pill to swallow, but endlessly fascinating while winking with warped pleasure at the audience.
4 [out of 4] stars
DVD Features: Audio Commentary With Director Henrik Ruben Genz and Producer Thomas Gammeltoft; Terribly Happy Behind The Scenes Documentary; Featurette Danish News Story About Terribly Happy, With Henrik Ruben Genz and Author Erling Jepsen; Danish TV Clip With Genz and Jepsen.