Judge Gordon Sullivan is happily terrible.
"It's all mud, cows, and rubber boots."—Ingerlise
Many, many cultural differences get lost in translation, but there are a few that are surprisingly resilient. One of the stronger ones seems to be the antipathy between city folk and country folk. City folks are treated poorly out in the country, and vice versa, and many movies have been made to capitalize on that tension. We can add Terribly Happy, one of the more oddly named movies out there, to the list. Combining a dozen different genres into a strange noir stew, Terribly Happy takes the city-country dichotomy to new heights, with the audience along for the ride. It's not a perfect film, but Terribly Happy gets more right than wrong.
Facts of the Case
Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren, Rage) is a cop who's been sent away from Copenhagen to a town out near a bog. When he arrives, the townsfolk are cagey—violence and disappearance seem to be the norm. Not long after his arrival, Robert is approached by Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), a woman with a daughter and a violent husband. She hopes to ensnare Robert in femme fatale fashion, but not everything is as it seems in the town.
If the Coen brothers and David Lynch had an illegitimate child who was raised in the wilds of Denmark on a steady diet of noir and cowboy movies, he or she might make a movie like Terribly Happy. It's a noir film—complete with femme fatale, hard drinking, deep secrets, and murder—but noir tends to be a city phenomenon, and this film is hardly set in the city. It's also a Western—complete with new sheriff, a cowboy hat-wearing villain, sleepy townsfolk, and gunplay—but there's nothing really Western about a small town in Denmark. Terribly Happy is also a psychological thriller—complete with more dark secrets, a haunting past, and sexual tension—but it moves at such a glacial pace that it can be hard to stay thrilled.
Despite the strange mix of genres and influences, Terribly Happy hits the mark more often than not. It undeniably does a fantastic job of conjuring an unsettling atmosphere and placing the audience (as well as Robert) into the middle of it. I don't think the tourism board in Denmark will be thanking director Henrick Ruben Genz any time soon, but he gives the whole film a dark, dingy look that perfectly fits the mood of the script. From the film's opening moments, Genz turns this tiny town into the whole world, producing a claustrophobic atmosphere that turns the hamlet into a kind of hell where anything could happen. It's a bravura combination of direction and cinematography.
However, all of that beautiful cinematography would be for nothing if it weren't for the strong performances from the cast. Jakob Cedergren is simply amazing as Robert. He has the old noir task of appearing strong and capable, but also open enough to be sucked in by his lady fair. Cedergren combines these two modes effortlessly, equally believable when he bluffs the villain as when he appears broken by his actions back in Copenhagen. Lene Maria Christensen is equally strong as his dramatic foil. She too must appear both strong and vulnerable, manipulating Robert while being intimidated by her husband, Jorgen. Jorgen too is played by a talented actor. Kim Bodina brings a vibe like Tom Sizemore at his most coked-out and menacing to his role, and the cowboy hat is the perfect touch. The rest of the townsfolk don't get much screen time, but they all do an excellent job conjuring the hothouse atmosphere of the small town.
Although it didn't do much theatrical business in the State, Terribly Happy pulls out the stops for this DVD. The first thing I noticed was the packaging. Instead of the standard plastic keep case we get a folding cardboard holder for the disc that features stills from the movie. This is housed in a cardboard case, and the whole thing looks very elegant. The disc itself is also pretty strong. The video contains a surprising amount of detail, no serious compression problems, and carries out the film's visual aesthetic almost perfectly. Colors are muted, with lots of browns and grays, but black levels are consistent even in darker scenes. The audio includes 5.1 and 2.0 Danish language tracks. The 5.1 track includes some impressive use of the surrounds, and the music (which deserves a shout-out for being creepy without resorting to tired strings or piano sounds) and dialogue are well-balanced.
Extras start with a commentary by director Genz and producer Thomas Gammeltoft. Through thick accents the two discuss their vision of the film as well as its production. Although sometimes it's a struggle to understand them, they have lots of interesting things to say about the film. There are two small featurettes between the director and the writer, Erling Jespen. They provide a little background into their relationship and how the film came out of that. The disc finishes up with the film's trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Terribly Happy is not for everyone. It definitely has a strange vibe to it, and it's a pretty long film. The second act especially seems to go on forever, while the first act is packed full of information and plot points. Because the pacing is so odd, the film can be hard to sit through at times, even if some viewers will find it worth the wait in the end.
Terribly Happy is an odd little film that will appeal to fans of off-kilter noir and psychological thrillers. The DVD release is excellent, so this one is worth at least a rental for the curious.
Terribly Happy may not make everyone terribly happy, but it's not guilty.
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