Terribly Happy is not a terribly happy movie. It’s another iteration of a tried-and-true formula: disgraced city cop gets assigned to a small town only to discover a big secret, one typically unpleasant in nature. This time, the cop is named Robert Hansen and he is Danish. After committing an initially unnamed transgression back in Copenhagen, Robert is sent to the small town of Skarrild for a career time-out. Skarrild is a bleak, isolated place, and Terribly Happy makes that immediately apparent. The film’s very first shots are of the vast, dark, and eerie marshlands around the town; they’re accompanied by a monologue describing how, some time ago, a grotesque two-headed cow supposedly terrorized the area until townspeople drowned it in a bog.
Once actually in Skarrild, the film introduces us to the standard figments of small-town life. There’s the tiny pub frequented by the same regulars, there’s the supermarket frequented by the same youthful shoplifters, and a general sentiment that “here, we do things our own way”. It’s from this “we do things our own way” sentiment that the conflicts in these “disgraced city cop in small town” movies arise, and that rings true for Terribly Happy as well. Robert stumbles upon Ingerlise Buhl, a local woman whose husband Jørgen beats her on a regular basis. Jørgen doesn’t just beat Ingerlise though; he’s the town’s alpha male and nobody wants to screw with him, meaning Ingerlise is reluctant to file an official domestic violence report. In this and other smaller instances, Robert is left hanging; the town’s insularity and peer-pressured recalcitrance mean that he’s unable to be the just lawman that he thinks he should be.
While the town has its problems, Robert has his own as well. We see him make unanswered calls to his former wife and daughter, and we see his willpower wane when Ingerlise keeps fleeing to him with each beating. Robert’s troubles and the town’s troubles eventually collide, explode, and together begin a long descent into a dark abyss.
Though Terribly Happy‘s premise isn’t particularly original, it does an exceptional job at building suspense. All throughout, the movie broods. The imagery of Skarrild creates a perpetually foreboding atmosphere; storm clouds are always on the horizon, and wind flees through the endless desaturated grasslands. Behind the dialog is an unsettling soundtrack reminiscent of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”, droning louder and louder as Skarrild and Robert’s darkness build. Even something as innocent as baby carriage contributes; the Buhl’s daughter Dorthe pushes one along at dusk whenever her parents fight, its frightening creaks shooting through the otherwise quiet town. Terribly Happy puts you on war footing in a battle of creeps. You’re on edge because just over that dark marshland horizon, something horrible is coming, but you have no idea what it is, and that makes the horror even worse.
Terribly Happy also bears much unintentional resemblance to the later South Korean film A Girl At My Door, itself a member of the “disgraced city cop in small town” category. Both movies blur the line between victim and victimized, though with different flavors. While A Girl At My Door builds its strength on character development and acting, Terribly Happy‘s artistry is more compelling than its characters. There’s also some similarity in the role and symbolism of children in the two movies; Terribly Happy includes kids as not-so-innocent bystanders to spice up its bleakness, though not as much as A Girl At My Door.
All in all, Terribly Happy is a piece that takes a familiar template and gives it a unique flavor. Unfortunately those templated origins prevent it from becoming an evocative masterpiece that you can watch again and again; it’s special, but not one of those movies for which every viewing reveals something new. Nevertheless, it remains a recommended piece, something you should at least get around to watching once when you feel like getting transported to a dark Danish town with storm clouds on the horizon.
Terribly Happy (Danish: Frygtelig lykkelig)–Denmark. Directed by Henrik Ruben Genz. First released October 2008. Running time 1hr 30min. Starring Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia, and Lars Brygmann.