Years of moviegoing have familiarized us with tales of city folk waylaid in country towns – quirky Southern backwaters and dusty desert holes.
“Terribly Happy,” the Danish foreign film submission to the Oscars, transplants a familiar genre to a small, sparsely populated village on the gray plains of southern Jutland.
A police officer, Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren), arrives from Copenhagen, transferred for something bad enough to get him cast off to the sticks.
The town is desolate. A grim bog lurks on the outskirts, a swampy pit that, we are told, can swallow a cow whole. The craggy, shifty townspeople seem to regard it as the local courthouse – and a liberally used one, at that.
Hanson, clean-cut and upright, arrives with a “by the book” mentality that immediately chafes with the locals. Stoically hunched over their beers in the town pub, they bewilder him by knowing his every move.
The authority they better respect is Jorgen (Kim Bodnia), a grizzled, stout tyrant in a cowboy hat. Hanson quickly makes himself Jorgen’s enemy by becoming friendly with and protective of his attractive, abused wife, Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen).
It would be simple enough if, once the violence picked up, we were left to root for Hanson to outwit the crafty country bumpkins, resist their femme fatale and keep from being sucked into the bog.
But “Terribly Happy” throws several wrinkles into the old formula that reveal a much broader and cynical view of corruption.
The film, directed by Henrick Ruben Genz, is all moodiness, midnight black comedy and noir mystery. That’s earned comparisons to a Coen brothers flick, but “Terribly Happy” is more straightforward and less self-aware.
The commonality, though, is that Genz playfully inverts genres: The proverbial showdown happens not as a shootout but a drinking contest.