In a throwaway gag from Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 debut novel V., the narrator informs us that the main character, Benny Profane, passed the time during his night watchman gig by reading an “avant-garde western” called Existential Sheriff given to him by his raucous navy pal Pig Bodine. The contents of the book are never divulged and it’s never mentioned again, but that evocative two-word title lingers in the mind as a tantalizing possibility. Now 45 years later, Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz has crafted a film for which Existential Sheriff (or rather Existential Marshal) just might be an appropriate designation, even if the project’s exhaustingly dense impressionistic visuals and listless moral inquiry mark it as being considerably more successful in conception than in practice.
Actually, the film is titled Terribly Happy, the western elements are mostly confined to the first 20 minutes (before giving way to a surreal noir), and the literary flavor, at least early on, is more Kafka than Pynchon. When disgraced and mentally troubled Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) accepts a gig as a marshal in a rural town, he finds a deeply entrenched network of local customs in place, dictating every action from dealing with shoplifters to hanging one’s laundry. As he tries to apply rational police procedure to his job, he’s repeatedly told, “That’s not how we do things here,” by an eccentric gallery of locals. These early scenes eerily evoke the sense of being transplanted to an alien world that runs on its own impenetrable logic, inviting welcome comparisons to K.’s attempts to understand his new surroundings in The Castle. This baffling insularity carries with it an ethical element as well, as many of the town’s customs seem designed to keep outsiders at bay, allowing the residents to operate freely without falling under the watchful eye of the district police.
Eventually, Hansen, not the picture of mental or moral stability to start with, becomes contaminated by the local customs. Falling for the abused wife of the town bully (who is introduced in true oater fashion, ominously smoking a cigarette beneath a ten-gallon hat), he also takes to punching shoplifters (in accordance with local practice) and learning to cover up crime. Most of the film deals with his tortured vacillations between accepting the town’s ass-saving ways and striving to assert his own moral claims, an imperative that becomes especially acute after he himself becomes involved in a death. Mirroring Hansen’s perpetual dislocation is an aesthetic (based on wide-angle lenses, looming faces, and a dense ambient sound mix) that continually strives to make strange the environment. Still, just as it’s difficult to find in the relentless push-pull of the marshal’s behavior anything but the perfunctory fluctuations of an uncertain character study, so it’s hard to avoid the sense that all the heady atmospherics—peaking in a central Lynchian (or is it Wellesian?) set piece and a final shooting that recalls Taxi Driver—are nothing but an exhausting and largely empty exercise. Only a running strand of low-fi humor, including a late wild west-style beer-drinking showdown that nearly saves the day, keeps the project afloat, but this is one avant-garde western (and film noir and psychodrama) that no one, Pig Bodine or otherwise, need recommend.