Terribly Happy (Frygtelig lykkelig)

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  Terribly Happy
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) made a mistake that cost him his job, his marriage and family and banishment to a backwater town in remote South Jutland. He plans to stay clean and sober and do a top-notch job to get his exile repealed. However, the townsfolk have different plans for their new marshal in “Terribly Happy.”

Director Henrik Ruben Genz, with Dunja Gry Jensen, adapt Erling Jepson’s novel of the same name and create a quirky, keeps you guessing film that is definitely influenced by the American Western. The antagonist, Jorgen Buhl (Kim Bodnia), even wears a cowboy hat, boots and shirt. Robert is the new sheriff, an outsider, suddenly thrust into a very private town whose inhabitants harbor terrible, terrible secrets. It is like Clint Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter” only with the roles reversed as Robert tries to resist the relentless pressures put upon him by the townsfolk.

The ensemble cast is impressive with Jakob Cedergren being first among equals as the city mouse cop sent among the country mice of the small town. However, his urban sophistication and training as a police officer in Copenhagen is no match for the collusion of the town’s prominent leaders in making sure the new sheriff stays. The twists and turns of the story are always surprising and never dull.

The rest of cast includes Lena Marie Christensen as Ingellise, the town hottie who is married to abusive Jorgen who, it is publicly ignored, beats his wife. Dr. Zerleng (Lars Brygmann) and storeowner Moos miss the old sheriff, their drinking and card playing buddy, in a town where “people disappear.” “Terribly Happy” is a mystery thriller from start to finish that goes in unexpected directions and it is an enjoyable ride all the way through. I give it a B.

As part of his recovery from an undisclosed trauma in Copenhagen, police officer Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren, "The Green Butchers") is sent to rural Skarrild to assume the position of marshal.  He is greeted by the self-described 'town quack,' Dr. Zerleng (Lars Brygmann, "The Inheritance"), who gives him the option of taking on the previous marshalls cat or having it 'thrown in the bog.'  He is told the local greeting for any time of day is 'Mojn,' but when he uses it he gets quizzical, suspicious looks in return, and for just about every move he makes he's told 'That's not the way we do things here' in Denmark's submission for the 2009 Foreign Language Film "Terribly Happy.'

Do not let the 'based on true events' tag at film's beginning alarm you - the author of the novel, Erling Jepsen, who grew up across the street from director Henrik Ruben Genz, was actually related to the family portrayed here as the Buhls and much of the rural eccentricities, like hanging one's laundry in a very particular order, are real behaviors of rural Southern Jutlanders.  The disturbed Copenhagen policeman who is transferred to the oddly vacant marshal's position only to be poisoned by the town, however, is a complete dramatic invention. In fact, cowriter (with Dunja Gry Jensen)/director Henrik Ruben Genz shifted the emphasis of Jepsen's book to the policeman, and, in so doing, has concocted a black comedy that moves in unexpected directions.  It has a lot in common with David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."

But if Lynch emphasized the ordinary - white picket fences, waving firemen - at the beginning of his film, Ruben Genz does the opposite with a prologue all about a cow that was born with a human head that made the townswomen insane until it was thrown into Skarrild's bog, a place not unlike "The Lovely Bones'" sinkhole, a spot hiding a town's secrets.  When Robert arrives, he tries to connect with the locals, but he's clearly an 'other,' a lawman looked down upon for ordering a non-alcoholic beverage at the local pub while on duty, a policeman making trouble when he takes action upon a man known to be regularly beating his wife.  The whole town is aware of this last fact and each time it happens a town herald may as well announce it - Ingerlise Buhl's (Lene Maria Christensen, "Brothers") daughter Dorthe (the character the author based on his niece) leaves the house to push a baby carriage with a squeaking wheel about the town's streets.  When Ingerlise comes to see Robert, it is as if the town's claws sink into his back - he's hooked, lined and sinking.  Now he seems to be doing things the Skarrild way - like hauling off and belting the town's young shoplifter.  Even the cat now returns his 'Mojn!'

One of the great things about "Terribly Happy,' which won seven Danish Oscars and the Karlovy Vary Grand Prix, is how director Ruben Genz paints the whole town off kilter.  Shopkeeper Købmand Moos (Anders Hove, "The Boss of It All") has a cupboard which only opens to waist-height where his juvenile criminals cool their heels.  The pub bartender (Bodil Jørgensen, "The Green Butchers") looks like some kind of carnie sorceress and the town doctor seems to be indulging in his own prescriptions.  A weekly card game is some type of subversive town council meeting.

Scandinavian films have been prominent of late and they mostly seem to be whimsically black comedies ("O'Horten," "The Man Without a Past," "You, the Living") and dark thrillers ("Fear Me Not," "Just Another Love Story," the upcoming "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo").  "Terribly Happy" is a combination of the two and its protagonist's downward spiral is dangerously intoxicating.

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