Terribly Happy
Go ahead, call me the Danish Ben Affleck one more time …

Theatrical Release Date: 04/09/2010
Director: Henrik Ruben Genz
Cast: Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia, Lars Brygmann, Mathilde Maack

What would it be like to splice the DNA of “Blood Simple”, “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks” into an old school Clint Eastwood Western? The answer is “Terribly Happy”, a masterful Danish film by director and co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz which won the Bodil Award for Best Film (essentially their Oscars) and was nominated for inclusion to last year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film (I can think of at least two films it should have beat out in the final group).

Centered on a Copenhagen police officer who, after a nervous breakdown is assigned to a mysteriously vacant position as Marshall of a small town in the Danish countryside, the film explores what happens when an outsider comes into this insular community and just how far they will go to maintain their independence from the outside world.

To be sure, this is a bit of an odd film. It often takes a turn for the macabre and harkens back to the tone and certain more specific elements of the works of the Coen brothers and David Lynch – all the while playing out like a Western with horror film sensibilities (think “Village of the Damned” minus the aliens/super powers).

Creating a cohesive and believable atmosphere that fulfills such a description is a delicate balancing act that Genz and his team walked brilliantly from start to finish. The stark landscape of this little town is beautifully displayed by cinematographer Jørgen Johansson and I would recommend seeing this in theaters to get the full effect (unless you’re filthy rich and have a ridiculously large home setup). The music helps marry the disparate tones of the film and the script smartly layers the strange elements of the town and its people.

Obviously, to make the story sing you need good acting performances and that’s exactly what’s happened here. Jakob Cedergren superbly shapes the role – a big fish in a small pond, stoically going about trying to recapture his old life. He is hoping that this little break will get him back to Copenhagen quickly but once he gets involved with the local femme fatale (Lene Maria Christensen) who just happens to be married to the town bully (Kim Bodnia), all bets are off. Watching his character adapt to each new unwritten rule of the town is a pleasure to watch, as the role is layered and filled with subtlety, rather than just another simple two dimensional stereotype as is so often the case in mainstream films these days.

Christensen’s character is enduring spousal abuse from Bodnia’s and the pair play their roles with a marvelous shading of the moral compass. They go about their lives in a constant cycle of abuse, known quite well by the town folk as there are no secrets in a community this small, and it is the new Marshall’s involvement that forces a resolution to the situation.

A 4.5 out of 5, “Terribly Happy” creates a dark, strange tone and holds it throughout. The final scenes are layered with delicious tension and from acting to direction to cinematography, the entire production gets it right and this is one that shouldn’t be missed by fans of great foreign cinema as it is easily one of the best films 2010 has offered on American soil.

One side note is that this, of course, is getting remade for American audiences who find the “difficult” process of reading subtitles too much for them to take and as a chance for film financiers to make a quick buck on proven material. The only positive may lie in that Genz will be the one ‘translating’ his own film and, in an interview with Screen Daily, said he “wasn’t finished with the material and wanted to explore it further”. While I think the film perfectly wraps everything up and is one of the rare examples of a production rolling the credits at just the right moment, maybe Genz will surprise me and I’ll just have to wait for him to finish the remake and find out for myself.