Terribly Happy

Terribly Happy (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop based off Copenhagen but he is temporarily assigned to a small Danish town because of something he had done while in the city. Dr. Zerleng (Lars Brygmann) makes him feel welcome but the other residents look at him with suspicion. There is talk around town that Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) is constantly beaten by her husband (Kim Bodnia). When Robert hears about it, he feels, as a professional and moral obligation, that he must look into the rumor and, if necessary, set it right.

Based on the screenplay by Henrik Ruben Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen, “Frygtelig lykkelig,” also known as “Terribly Happy,” is like watching a transparent container in which red Kool-Aid is added with water, without mixing, and the color of blood gradually takes over. It moves at a deliberate slow pace but almost each scene is an additional clue to what is really going on in the town. But is this mystery worth solving or is everyone better off leaving it alone?

On the outskirts of town, there is a bog where secrets are literally hidden especially during rainy days when the ground is readily absorbent: out of sight, out of mind. There is a story–supposedly true–of a cow, after being buried in the mud for six months but later rescued, that gave birth to a two-headed calf, one cow, the other human. It is said to have brought bad luck to the community. It had to be killed to alleviate the curse. Ever since this curious phenomenon, the small town had become afraid of things foreign.

Robert is a representation of the two-headed calf. The scenes shot outdoors are perfectly gloomy as if the sky is ready to cry from the injustices committed by the residents in the hamlet. For instance, everybody knows that every time Dorthe (Mathilde Maack), Ingerlise’s daughter, takes her cart and walks in the streets, her mother is being beaten by her father until she is blue, bloody, and numb. Instead of interceding, the townsfolk continue to gulp down beers and play cards. But the out-of-towner proves to have a soft spot for Ingerlise and Dorthe. He has a wife and daughter in Copenhagen, but neither returns his calls. Perhaps it has something to do with his reassignment.

As the film goes on, we wonder if Robert is not to be fully trusted. Someone peeks into his records and discovers that he has spent some time being institutionalized. But for what? During a lonely night, when Robert thinks he heard his cat say, “Mujn,” a local greeting, he is convinced he needs pills from the doctor.

Based on a novel by Erling Jepsen, “Terribly Happy,” directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, is similar to the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple.” and “Fargo” in terms of chilling thrills being coupled with gallows humor. Furthermore, the material is playful and willing to force us to look at things differently, that maybe we should be as suspicious as the local residents toward the cop.

Is Robert’s mind exaggerating the happenings around town or is everyone truly hiding something? It is an effective mystery-thriller because the answer is almost both yet it is able to go beyond our own questions and suspicions.

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