Movies · Reviews

Review: Terribly Happy

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2009

Who’s your favorite Danish film director? Favorite Danish film? No? Nothing? Don’t feel bad, I’ve never seen a movie from Denmark either. (And no, Lars Von Trier’s home video art projects don’t count as movies.) I’ve finally seen my first one though, and if it’s any indication of the country’s typical output I’ll be looking for more in the very near future. It mixes mystery, black comedy, and some eerie small town shenanigans into a delicious, crazy-filled danish of Coen-esque proportions. In fact, if one half of the Coen Brothers (doesn’t really matter which) took a flight from LA to Denmark and watched nothing but ‘Twin Peaks’ from takeoff to landing Terribly Happy is quite possibly the movie he’d go direct upon exiting the plane.

Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is a big-city cop with emotional issues. He’s been reassigned to a sleepy little town in rural Denmark to work through his problems, but as we all know small towns come with their own special brand of troubles. His new neighbors include the town bully, an abused wife, a young girl who wanders the streets at night pushing an empty baby carriage, and an odd trio of card players eternally in search of a fourth. And then there’s the town’s singular geographical attraction… a bog sits on the outskirts of town and like any bog worth it’s weight in muck this one is home to more than a few secrets. Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), the battered wife, comes to Hansen for help with her domestic problems, but can she be trusted? Unbruised, American women can get pretty wonky at times, so just imagine how mixed up this beaten broad for Bumfudge, Denmark is feeling. Hansen tries to help but is quickly reminded why the saying “no good deed goes unpunished” is a saying in the first place. You see, Ingerlise’s husband is the feared and violent town bully…

Terribly Happy fits right in with the grand tradition of small town paranoia films. There’s a newcomer from the big city, the locals are suspicious, untrusting, and secretive, and there’s a general sense everything is just a bit… off. The preferred method of dealing with teen shoplifters is a solid swing to the face, and when Hansen refuses to comply one of the town’s residents does it for him. The bog seems to be a final resting place for most of the town’s troubles, and that means both exactly what you think and what you’re not thinking. Everybody knows everyone’s business and they have definite plans for Hansen. As an anti-spoiler I’ll say this is pretty far removed from the likes of Dead & Buried and The Wicker Man, both of which also saw an outside member of law enforcement come to town with unfortunate results. Does that tell you what does or doesn’t happen in Terribly Happy? Not in the slightest. But maybe the cat that tells Hansen ‘aloha’ in Danish might clear things up a bit…

Cedergren does a fantastic job reacting to the pains of the past and the confusion of the present. He’s had a mental breakdown of sorts and is now banished from his family, and while that pain eats at him he also has to deal with a present reality where he has little idea what’s really going on around him. Hansen makes some bold choices for a protagonist and risks losing the audience’s goodwill, but the screenplay and Cedergren’s sympathetic performance keep us on his side. Christensen’s Ingerlise doesn’t fair as well as either a character or an actress. She comes on too fast and too strong on both counts and doesn’t blend in with the rest of the locals or performances. The rest of the cast is suitably creepy and humorous in just the right doses. The film also looks damn good. Lighting throughout is effectively moody, the streets at night are atmospheric, and the violence is sharp and shocking.

Terribly Happy is a bit slow moving at times, but it suits the seemingly motionless air often found in small towns where very little happens (even as a lot is actually happening). The characters build and react with deliberate intention, and fans of the Coen Brothers’ small town works should enjoy it’s creatively slow-burn. Terribly Happy is based on a novel by Erling Jepsen, but is also reportedly based on a true story. I’m not sure how much is fact or fiction, but it’s easy to believe the whole thing did actually happen. Aside from the talking cat of course…

The Upside: Deliberately paced to match the small town; lead acting is quite good; low-key Fargo; odd touches; twisting narrative leaves you unsure what to believe at times

The Downside: Ingerlise is over-written and over-acted; deliberate pace is sometimes a slow one

On the Side: Nicolas Winding Refn is also Danish, but the only one of his films I’ve seen is Bronson, and that’s technically a British production. Based on that film I will be seeing his Pusher trilogy soon.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.