Dir. Henrik Ruben Genz
Starring Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Danish Tom Sizmore
TERRIBLY HAPPY is a Danish film about a tightly-wound Cop (Cedergren) who gets transferred to the boondocks of Denmark (the deep South, I guess it’s the same everywhere) for an initially unspecified fuckup in the city. It’s a close-knit community, and he’s an obvious outsider without enough context to quite be able to discern what the townsfolk are up to. And they’re a colorful enough lot that they’re definitely up to something. There’s the town Tom Sizmore lookalike bully, his aggressively sexual wife, their creepy daughter, a Dennis Hopper lookalike with a big scar on his face, a manically grinning shopowner, the self-professed “town quack”. And then there are those people who recently disappeared but no one seems to be looking for. And that bog just on the outskirts of town with a truck parked in the center. Our boy plays it carefully, not really sure what’s going on but not oblivious to the fact that there’s more than meets the eye here. He’s not really sure what they’re capable of, and we’re not exactly sure what he’s capable of. But he keeps his wits about him and tries to figure out what’s going on as the situation gets tenser and more potentially explosive. Then one day his cat tells him “Good morning”* and we realize this isn’t even close to the worst of it.
This is the first film I’ve seen in a very long time which can appropriately be called Hitchcockian (or Hitchcockionian, if you prefer) in the gleeful way it tightens the noose on its protagonist. Like Hitchcock’s best (but not like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Fuck that one), it keeps tight control over its twisty, turny plot while at the same time maintaining a laser-like focus on keeping you entertained through a winning mix of imminent sexuality, boiling tension, and oblique black humor. It’s confidence in escalating the predicament of our lone cop is truly impressive, as it finds ever more devious ways of evolving into something different than you though it would be. Every time it seems like we’re getting the handle on the situation, some elegantly perfect new wrinkle emerges. It toys masterfully with our expectations and even our loyalties, shifting our sympathies between characters and gleefully setting up hidden moral trap for the unsuspecting viewer to walk into. It’s a wildly ambitious setup, but executed with such a diabolical confidence that it never seems pretentious or even arty -- just relentless.
The style has been compared to the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, and I just compared it to Hitchcock. That may be overselling it slightly; for one thing, director Genz is not quite a visual master of that caliber, nor able to communicate as eloquently through pure cinema. But in terms of tone, those names are a good fit**. It successfully evokes the Coen Brothers’ sense of morbid fun mixed with dread, and Lynch’s ability to make the ordinary seem alien and horrific. It even has a little of Oliver Stone’s excellent U-TURN, with its protagonist trying only to get out of town but finding himself sucked inexorably in by his own flaws and the town’s grotesquely exaggerated denizens. No Indian Spirit guide, though. Maybe they’re saving that for the sequel?
The film is presented realistically, but there’s enough of a weird nightmarish quality to it that one might be tempted to speculate that there’s a metaphor of some kind lurking beneath the surface (or at the very least that it’s not meant to be taken entirely literally). At times its basically WAITING FOR GODOT with guns. The town is spartan almost to the point of absurdity, just a few bare buildings stuck in the center of a vast emptiness which stretches into the hazy distance as far as the eye can see in every direction. There’s a perpetually menacing steel gray sky lurking above them, listlessly oscillating between “about to rain” and “actually raining.” There’s a constant presence of the unseen outside world (the big city), always referred to but never actually seen, from which disruption can arrive with no warning and into which the elements of this closed world seem to mysteriously disappear. There’s obviously a plot brewing, but the more you see of it the more clear it becomes that it’s goals, and maybe even its composition, is more esoteric than criminal. Who the villains are and what exactly they want is always elusive without ever quite being outright inexplicable. Is it too much to wonder if maybe this is some sort of weird purgatory, a place where our hero is sent to test his moral fiber and perhaps to pay for his crimes?
To its credit, the film isn’t saying. Or even implying, really -- its willing to provide you a weird, creepy world and let you figure out what it means. It’s a little less confident about the plot, however -- occasionally it slips into the self-conscious habit of overexplaining to make sure you get all the details right. It’s all well-handled and it adds up rather nicely, but if there’s one thing that keeps it from being in the league of the Hitchcocks, Lynches, Coens, and Stones its that those directors would rather leave some questions unanswered than bring in a bunch of expository dialogue to muck up the simple elegance of an enduring riddle. The explanations are good, but the mystery is what we really savor. The true masters of tension understand that their job is to be in service to the mood, not to the specifics of plot. And the film is at its best when it does just that -- the classic sequence where two characters have a wordless duel of hard drinking, for example, needs no explanation other than the subtle changes of expression on the actors’ faces and the stylish but controlled aggression of the cinematography. What exactly are they thinking? We don’t know specifically, but we understand enough to fill in the gaps and appreciate exactly what the scene is going for.
I certainly appreciate what the film is going for. Its unique and ambitious, but even more importantly its simply a spectacularly efficient tension-building machine. Whatever it means, whoever you want to compare it to, I defy anyone to resist its looming mystery or fail to be drawn it at its relentless escalation. It’s a good reminder that a great story is all in the telling. What kind of world do we live in where the tribulations of a small-town Danish cop are a hundred times more gripping than 3 multi-million dollar films about giant fighting robots put together? In the words of another melancholy Dane (and TERRIBLY HAPPY is full of ‘em):' there's the respect that makes calamity of so long life'.
*Or “goodbye,” they point out that the colloquialism “mojn” can mean both.
**Funny enough, the film it probably most closely resembles in structure is HOT FUZZ. Uptight policeman gets transferred to small rural town to calm him down, only to find evidence of a creepy unspoken conspiracy amongst the townsfolk? FUZZ is so on the ball with its cop movie parodies that it actually beat the film it most closely mimics to the theaters by a full year.