As the first word in the title “Terribly Happy” suggests, the second word is only appropriate in an ironic sense. Henrik Ruben Genz’s film is, after all, a Danish production – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, in fact. And, if we can generalize based on the occasional Danish films that show up in the United States, those folks don’t do “happy.” Hamlet was not the only melancholy Dane: Nobody would classify Carl Theodor Dreyer and Lars von Trier as sunshine boys, either.
In Genz’s noirish movie, Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) takes up an assignment as the sole officer in a small town out in the boondocks. Having just emerged from treatment for some sort of breakdown, he’s been sent into rural exile either as punishment or rehabilitation; the new posting is supposed to offer him a chance to regain his sea legs. Or, more accurately, his bog legs, since the town’s character seems inextricably bound up with its bog, which, among other things, is valued by the locals as a good place to dump bodies.
No wonder, then, that they’re distrustful of all meddling outsiders. “That’s not the way we do things here,” they helpfully advise Robert at every turn. The town is downright creepy – a single dysfunctional organism that either assimilates you or crushes you. (Ominously, we are never told exactly what became of his predecessor.)
Robert’s professionalism is immediately tested by Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen), a slightly shopworn blonde, who, while reporting that her brutish husband, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia), beats her, unmistakably puts the moves on him. When he doesn’t respond, she withdraws her complaint and leaves in a huff.
Still, in the manner of innumerable film noir heroes, Robert is soon more embroiled in the couple’s private issues than any sane person would want to be, and since his standard peacekeeping techniques seem meaningless here, he begins adopting the local behavior. Is the violence and misogyny contagious? Or does Robert already harbor an ugly, more primal self that the town is merely awakening? Plot twists and increasingly complex moral quandaries ensue.
Let me be far from the first to suggest that “Terribly Happy” is most reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ work, particularly “The Man Who Wasn’t There” – though “The Wicker Man,” “Red Rock West,” and “U Turn” wouldn’t be far off the mark either. Cosmic irony is the dominant tone: every step Robert takes to extricate himself only sucks him in deeper. Morally, the entire town is a bog.
One can speculate about a political subtext here. Genz and Erling Jepsen (upon whose novel the film is based) both acknowledge that the setting is based on the town where they grew up together. In 2007, Denmark consolidated numerous such municipalities into fewer, larger administrative districts. It’s easy to imagine that already clannish residents would stew with resentment over their autonomy being usurped by a more centralized authority. In the film, the natives’ immediate reaction to a problem is always “Let’s not bother Tonder with this” (referring to the provincial headquarters).
But embracing (or even considering) this bonus layer of possible meaning isn’t necessary to enjoy “Terribly Happy.” Genz and Erling have constructed a story so clever that the pleasure of following its twists is enough in itself. Grade: B (Unrated.)
Peter Rainer, the Monitor’s film critic, is on vacation this week.