White-knuckle suspense meets delightfully quirky noir in Terribly Happy, an expertly crafted mood piece that plays like a collaboration between David Lynch and the Coen brothers. After suffering a nervous breakdown, straight-laced cop Robert Hansen is pulled away from his wife and children in the city and reassigned to what feels like the Twilight Zone—a remote small town inhabited by a collection of strange, enigmatic characters. In the blink of an eye, his first case appears: a damsel in distress seeking protection from her booze-guzzling husband. Probing the townspeople for answers merely sinks Robert deeper into mystery and danger. Can he escape the clutches of his nightmare and make it back to his family?
Terribly Happy, the 2010 Danish Academy Awards submission for Best Foreign Film, has been compared to the Coen brothers' noir comedies Blood Simple and Fargo, but it also bears likeness to Roman Polanski's odd, psychological horror films like The Tenant. The deadpan comedy here is so bleak that it will hardly induce laughter, yet plot ironies that pile upon each other throughout make this story uniquely gruesome and uncanny. In Terribly Happy, policeman Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is relocated, as punishment, from Copenhagen to the small town of Skarrild in a flat, rural Danish county called South Jutland. Delivered to a deserted main street with a warning that major action may occur, Robert is hardly convinced that there will be a single activity to pass time. Slowly, through Robert, viewers meet and greet the quirky community characters, like Dr. Zerleng (Lars Brygmann), a poker-playing, drug-addled physician with access to the town secrets, and Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), the town beauty who dates a beast, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia). Robert quickly discovers that disappearances in a nearby bog are obviously solvable crimes but are so covered up by the community that he must assimilate, through violence, in order to expose injustice. However, as this violence escalates, a miniature but brutal war between Robert and his antagonists ensues, leaving him ensnared in a swampy situation into which he sinks deeper and deeper. Part of the dry humor in Terribly Happy relies on teasing its podunk, zombielike characters, and part of it is in the crime plot that reaches an absurd plateau as the last bodies are dredged out of sludge. While the film is highly individualistic and the script well written, the pacing feels weighted down in the mud that permeates the setting. Its slow-moving approach to crescendo may be seen as a drag to some, while to others it will mark another success in the film's aim to show how a dreadfully dull setting induces insanity. --Trinie Dalton