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Terribly Happy
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by Jay Seaver

"The bogs of Denmark are actually a great spot for a noir western."
5 stars

I take note of odd credits when watching movies, and maybe any readers from Denmark could fill me in on a couple from the end of "Terribly Happy": Is it common for Danish films to credit the people who put the teaser and trailer together, or were this particular film's previews noteworthy, and if so, is it the same one Oscilloscope used to promote the film in North America? I'm just curious, because the small cinema wasn't exactly packed, and it's too bad people missed it.

Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop from Copenhagen who has just been assigned to be the town of Skillard's new marshal. He describes it as a promotion, but it doesn't seem to be a strictly voluntary one: There's a daughter and an ex-wife who won't return his calls, and a bottle of pills he dumps down the toilet, even though Dr. Zerling (Lars Brygmann), "the local quack", says he's ready to refill the prescription. The locals don't particularly want him there, either; it's the sort of town that takes pride in taking care of its own problems, and nobody seems to worry about the occasional disappearances. That's not in Robert's nature, though, especially when he's confronted by the Buhls: Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) is the first to greet him in town, but has telltale cuts and bruises from her boorish husband Jørgen (Kim Bodina). Everybody knows when that happens; it's when their daughter Dorthe (Mathilde Maack) pushes her dolls' carriage around at night.

Terribly Happy hooks the audience early on, not because it necessarily has a unique set-up or hugely compelling performance, but because it's ready and willing to point the audience in different directions. Our first glimpse of Ingerlise is just a friendly hello, but it's hard to miss the femme fatale vibe coming off her the second time. Jørgen, meanwhile, is introduced with a shot straight out of a western. So, we're thinking, where's Robert heading; is he going to be Ingerlise's patsy or the marshal who cleans up the dirty town? Or does director and co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz have another destination in mind? After all, Skillard is neither the naked city or the windy American West; it's a murky swamp town.

Genz (along with co-writer Dunja Gry Jensen, adapting a novel by Erling Jepsen) does find surprising directions to go even as it uses film noir and western conventions to point us down one path or the other. What's perhaps more impressive is how Genz does it, not doing too much to highlight the plot twists but quietly turning the screw all the same. Much of the second half of the film is pure suspense; without holding anything back, Genz does a great job of keeping us intently interested in what's going to happen next.

He couldn't do it without Jakob Cedergren. We know from very early on that Robert isn't exactly squeaky-clean, but it's not just his determination to play things by the book that keeps the audience in his corner even as his flaws become more manifest. We can see the guy trying to live by his better nature even as Skillard chips away at it, and as he sinks into a moral quagmire to match the local bogs, he doesn't necessarily elicit automatic sympathy, but he gets people to look over their shoulders on Robert's behalf.

The rest of the cast is good, too, especially Christensen and Bodina. Kim Bodina, especially, is impressive; in many ways he winds up doing what Cedergren does in reverse, scraping off bits of bad first impression without ever letting us lose track of just why we had such a poor opinion of the guy. Christensen, meanwhile, is making Ingerlise a seductress even though it's hard to believe it of her; there's just the right balance of concerned mom and hothouse flower in her portrayal to keep us guessing. Lars Brygmann, similarly, manages to make Zerleng seem both corrupt but also, potentially, another outsider who could be an ally.

And then there are all the small details that show how much effort has been put into every frame of the film - how appropriately small Dorthe seems the first time we see her without the red coat she wears throughout the film, or how Robert's footwear tracks his assimilation by Skillard. All of those things keep the story and setting tight, so that those of us who came to this film (no matter what preview drew us) would have a hard time turning away.

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originally posted: 03/14/10 18:09:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.

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USA
  05-Feb-2010 (NR)
  DVD: 13-Jul-2010

UK
  N/A

Australia
  05-Feb-2010




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