“You’ve got to keep such a freak out of sight. Everyone knows that.”
Henrik Ruben Genz’s 2008 crime film Terribly Happy (Danish: Frygtelig lykkelig) is based on Erling Jepsen’s 2004 novel of the same name. The story follows Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a reserved police officer, who is sent to a small rural town after suffering a mental breakdown in Copenhagen. As he develops a fixation on Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), a coquettish victim of domestic abuse, Robert finds himself disturbing the town’s social order.
In many ways, Terribly Happy seems like a refraction of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007). It extracts many of the film’s elements, including an eerie small town and a marshal transferred from a big city, but bends them to accommodate a bare-boned Scandinavian atmosphere.
While Hot Fuzz‘s Nicholas aggravated his co-workers with his prowess and an abnormal devotion to rules, Robert’s exile is the result of his mysterious, violent behavior and a broken spirit. And while Nicholas assaults the corrupted locals with his undeterred sense of justice, Robert falls prey to forces that thwart the evolution of his conscience.
The film’s cold, gray setting conveys the hostility that greets Robert and never quite leaves his side, while also building an intriguing sense of claustophobia in the midst of endless fields. But once the suspense-building introduction to the town is over, Terribly Happy undergoes a puzzling transformation.
Meaningful glances and prolonged silence somehow bring out the film’s inner soap opera. The romantic element, arguably the crutch on which the plot wobbles, feels unforgivably forced. What’s more, it inspires many amateur montages that glue scenes together like a hand marrying mismatched puzzle pieces.
Predictably, this serves to strip the film of its steady pacing and much-needed clarity. In a way, this tactic may have been inflicted on Terribly Happy to add to its general mysticism, but falls short of inspiring any awe.
While an eyebrow-raising seduction takes place, one that involves blood-smeared kisses and provocative undressing of intimately-placed bruises, Terribly Happy‘s ridiculous lack of cause and effect keeps its true potential bottled up. Even the leisurely deterioration of the marshal’s mind isn’t given much breathing room.
Robert’s cognitive dissonance, known as the awful feeling experienced when two or more of one’s beliefs are inconsistent, make him a wonderfully complex character, but his individuality is compressed by the corrupted forces at play.
There is some ingenuity in the backward presentation of the film’s every element, making nothing seem as it truly is. Ingerlise’s daughter, a girl who is often heard taking her squealing pram out for a walk down the town’s dark, deserted streets, seems to have been plucked straight out of a horror film. And yet, she manages to challenge our preconceived notions quite early on.
There is also a parable about mystical sources of misfortune at the start of Terribly Happy, bringing to mind the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009). The black comedy toys with the parable of the dybbuk, an evil spirit. Similarly, in Terribly Happy, Ingerlise comes across as a mishap-causing evil entity that drags the inhabitants of the town into her convoluted home life, making the beer-chugging locals grind their teeth in dispassionate endurance.
Interestingly, the never-ending chain of corruption that bears down on Robert stands at odds with what is generally known about policing in small, rural communities. The IACP stated that smaller departments have the advantage of being able to engage all staff in the day-to-day operations, boosting their morale.
Additionally, the shorter chain of command allows the officers to have a positive impact not only on the local policies, but the people themselves. Suffice to say, Terribly Happy presents a bleaker outlook on life.
What does appear conducive to our understanding of Robert’s dubious behavior are the apparent high levels of stress experienced by small town law enforcement. A lack of resources and large areas in need of surveillance by a limited number of officers all play a role in the hidden deterioration of one’s collectedness.
All in all, Terribly Happy presents an interesting look at Scandinavian cinema, with its austere environment and provocative storytelling. It’s a shame, then, that the film’s execution leaves much to be desired.