Limitless horizons, flatlands, cowboy hats and lonesome saloons. The icons tell us we should be in the Midwest, but instead, in “Terribly Happy,” the landscape belongs to Jutland, Denmark’s nowhereland of floodplains, bogs and marshes. But what better place to set a thriller that borrows unabashedly from Westerns and film noir?
“Terribly Happy,” a new film by director Henrik Ruben Genz, based on the droll novel by Erling Jepsen, finds among its bogs the ingredients it needs to make an impressive feature that tips its Stetson to a history of 20th-century American film, but stakes out its own territory.
Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is literally the new sheriff in town. Leaving behind a family and some sort of a mental breakdown in Copenhagen, he has been reassigned to a one-horse town where a peculiar form of justice has evolved. The natives are unfriendly, and right from the start, when Robert steps out of the Range Rover into a puddle of water, we’re aware he doesn’t fit in.
Lene Maria Christensen’s femme fatale appears in his office almost immediately, equipped with a wide 1940s hat and a cigarette, very Lauren Bacall. Will the new sheriff do anything about her abusive husband? Well, says Robert, will she file a report? But does a woman need a report, when she stands this close to the sheriff, wanting to fall into his arms?
Part of the fun of “Terribly Happy” lies in noting these noir borrowings and seeing where Genz and Jepsen depart from them. There’s also a lot of Lynch in this film. Twenty years on from “Twin Peaks,” you can almost taste the cherry pie in the scenes at the local bar, where Robert at first refuses to order alcohol to the chagrin of the locals.
The femme fatale just happens to be married to the town bully, Jorgen, who we quickly sense is the real town authority, police or not. People hold their breath when he walks in. He’s played with a middle-aged paunchy threat by Kim Bodnia. Jorgen may not look much, but he’s all cocked-and-loaded violence.
“Terribly Happy” plays out in ways we might not expect, and here’s where Jepsen’s plot is at its best. Ditching the good/evil dichotomy we expect, Jepsen gives his cartoonish characters clashing allegiances, if not depth. To say why is to give away the film’s major plot point, halfway through. Ripped straight out of classic noir, it shouldn’t surprise us, but it does. Comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple” are apt, that 1984 film drenched in the shadows and blood of Ulmer and Tournier.
Robert is a haunted man, a man on the verge, and Jutland is just the type of place to lay waste to any imaginary, false bravado.
Apparently the success of “Terribly Happy” ? Denmark’s official Oscar entry this year ? has resulted in Genz being picked for the American remake. Watching the film with this in mind reminds us that Genz is meddling in genre standbys that America claims as its own. Try what you did in Denmark on American land, feller, and you really better be ready to step up. Looks like there really will be a new sheriff in town.
Starring: Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, and Kim Bodnia
Length: 90 minutes
Playing at: Riviera