As we get acclimated to the flat, almost featureless landscape outside the dead-end Danish town of Skarrild at the beginning of Terribly Happy, an affectless narrator tells the tale of a cow that sank into the local bog. It seems the cow reappeared six months later and give birth to a calf with two heads, one of them human. The farmer kept the cow, though “everyone knows” that’s the wrong thing to do, and all the local cattle and women went insane, until the men of the town took things in hand and buried the cow in the bog for good.
That twisted little tale is an economical introduction to this rural town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, there’s a right way to do everything—even hang up your wash—and whatever the townsfolk want to get rid of winds up in the bog. It’s also a good introduction to the movie, which maintains the same slightly absurdist tone throughout its streamlined, suspenseful, and always entertaining 90-minute run. Terribly Happy plays things almost straight (the movie is based on a novelization of a true story), but its perspective is just a little bit askew, like the low camera angles that mirror Robert Hansen’s sense of disorientation when he arrives in Skarrild.
Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen cop who’s been reassigned to Skarrild until he’s ready to return to the city, after a mysterious incident left him so traumatized he had a nervous breakdown. Maybe that’s why he’s such an easy mark for Ingelise (Lene Marie Christensen), a battered wife whose raw vulnerability and no-frills come-ons reel him in as if he were a stunned fish. But Ingelise is about the only one who’s glad to see Robert in this closed fist of a community, where things get a little tenser every time he steps up to the bar in the town’s lone tavern. Instead of keeping order, Robert winds up sowing chaos while sinking deeper and deeper into the life of a place he thought he was just passing through. What happens to Robert surprised me as much as it did him, as the story kept taking turns I didn’t anticipate.
A lot of the pleasure of watching this film comes from cinematographer Jørgen Johansson’s beautiful and expressive camerawork. That opening montage, a few overhead shots, and a pan around Robert as he stands on a roadside help establish just how empty this land is, but it’s the wide aspect ratio that drives it home. We feel Robert’s isolation every time we see him outdoors, surrounded by wide-open space, and the dark clouds that ring the horizon like a lid on a pressure cooker after things go south make him look as trapped as he feels. Luckily for us, Johansson finds beauty even in the sparest of Scandinavian landscapes and interiors (he reminds me a little of Timo Salminen, who’s done the same in a lot of Aki Kaurismäki movies), so we can enjoy looking at Robert’s surroundings even when he can’t.
All those empty spaces and tense standoffs make this feel a little like a western, as do Ingelise’s husband’s fondness for cowboy hats and western shirts, not to mention all the guns that keep surfacing. The townspeople even call Robert “marshal,” and there’s a High Noon feel to scenes where he marks time alone in a barren room that’s silent except for the loud tick of a clock.
But this is too odd a movie to fit neatly into a genre. When it was released in the U.S. this year, people compared it to the Coen brothers’ work, and I was thinking a lot about Blood Simple as I watched. Not so much for the plot similarities, since plenty of other movies have featured similar love triangles, but more for its surefooted switch between the clever, semi-detached tone of most of the film and the sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when things go hopelessly, horribly wrong.
But that parallel’s not perfect either. I felt the Coens looking down on the people in Blood Simple, detached and a little contemptuous, while Terribly Happy director Henrik Ruben Genz and screenwriter Dunja Gry Jensen seem to be a lot more sympathetic to their clay-footed characters. These two feel less like Olympian gods than relaxed but loving parents, laughing as they watch the kids bumble their way through the world, but never judging them too harshly for their all-too-human failings.