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Terribly Happy

Eerie and bleak -- must be Danish country
Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen and Kim Bodnia
Directed by Henrik Ruben Genz

Like the Coen Brothers’ 1984 film noir debut “Blood Simple,” Henrik Ruben Genz’s “Terribly Happy” begins with lingering shots of sparse roads, amid ominous narration about the sterile, unfriendly nature of the locale in question. And while the setting may not be humid, oily Texas wasteland, it’s just as alienating—a muddy, snowy, one-street town in rural South Jutland, Denmark.

It’s the type of farmland environment you might escape from the city to for a seemingly idyllic few days, only to find that what you’ve escaped from is sanity. The drive there is picturesque, but the town itself doesn’t ooze with quaint, down-home appeal; the townfolk are quietly hostile, self-governing, unwelcoming of newcomers.

That’s the world that Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a Copenhagen police officer, is forced into, after a breakdown leads to his estrangement from wife and daughter and his transfer from the big city force. He assumes the title of Marshall in his new surroundings, but quickly finds that the citizens have little to no respect for him, or his authority. When a child is arrested for petty theft, for instance, Robert tries to hold him at the station, but his underlings instruct him to wallop the kid and let him go. The local bar patrons menacingly scoff at his shunning of beer, in a fish-out-of-water scene reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s stuffy professor clashing with the British countryside drunkards in Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.”

Genz’s story also brings to mind “Body Heat,” as Robert, a rather dense-looking, vacantly handsome figure, becomes increasingly smitten with Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), the femme fatale abused by her outwardly brutish husband (Kim Bodnia) who seeks Robert’s protection. For awhile, the film threatens to fall into standard film noir traps, to set up a lurid, wildly complex series of double crossings that would not mesh well with the simplicity of the characters nor the setting.

But even after the murder that triggers the central plot, Genz wisely keeps the pace just as eerily sleepy as the town itself. Robert’s sturdy facade is broken down slowly, as we gradually learn more about his dark past. Certain townsfolk steadily emerge as smarter than they seemed, slyly leading people into their own web of lies. And instead of the tired, nerve-racking device of the innocent man framed unjustly, Genz opts for the juicier twist of the guilty man torn between surrendering himself and maintaining serenity.

Genz often toys subversively with certain staples of dark humor, as in the scene where Robert’s head is not shoved into a toilet bowl but rather scraped along a wall-length urinal. At a wake, the mourners fight greedily over a plate brimming with pastries. A group of elderly poker players hears a gunshot in the next room, followed by maniacal laughter; instead of showing alarm, they join in on the laughter.

Unfortunately, these dark touches don’t culminate in a particularly satisfying ending—in fact, the climactic twist makes little to no sense. And Cedergren’s performance shifts, depending on the tone of the scene, from aptly blank to incongruously so; with his slightly agape mouth, distant stare and dim eyes, he’s only convincing as a naïve outsider, less so as a calculating, complex soul.