So many films strive and fail to achieve the dark weirdness that we identify with the Coen brothers or, darker still, David Lynch -- that sense of a world suddenly tilted askew, with everyone casually playing by a set of rules you've never heard about. Think about films like Barton Fink or Blue Velvet -- and think about how few of their imitators have even come close to capturing that sense of quietly unhinged spookiness that can trigger shivers -- or laughter.
Henrik Ruben Genz's Terribly Happy, opening in limited release Friday (2/5/10), finds the sweet spot in that realm of disturbing, unpredictable drama tinged with the blackest possible comedy. Genz never works at it; he just lets his film unfold without trying to explain the seemingly alternate reality into which the film's ostensible hero, a struggling cop named Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren), has stumbled.
Not that Hanson wants to be there. He's a former Copenhagen cop who, after a breakdown, has been assigned to replace the marshal in a remote, bucolic town. The town has a bog into which cows and people occasionally stumble, never to be seen again -- sort of like the sinkhole in The Lovely Bones.
Hanson is given a lukewarm welcome by the locals, who aren't quite sure why they need a marshal at all -- they can take care of their own problems, thanks very much. The fact that Hanson drinks only club soda (he's on the wagon since his "problem," which only gradually comes to light) doesn't sit well with them either, because the local bar is apparently the only social life that any of them have.
Law-enforcement, however, consists of policing minor shoplifting by local kids (who he is expected to whip as punishment, something he resists) -- and spouse abuse. The latter seems to involve only one couple -- Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Marie Christensen), the outsider wife of local thug Jorgen Buhl (Kim Bodnia), who doesn't appreciate Hanson putting his nose into his family's affairs.
Nor does anyone else want to cross Jorgen, a bully who apparently has everyone in town cowed. Hanson, however, begins to fall for Ingerlise, perhaps because she comes on to him every time they meet.
So he stands up to Jorgen in quiet but firm ways. There is, at one point, a drinking contest between the two of them that is positively painful in its sheer volume, as the two of them alternately slam back shots and chug beers in a macho showdown that decimates both of them.
That it all goes horribly wrong for Hanson is no surprise; what is surprising is the ingenious and twisted directions in which Genz sends the plot. His series of reversals and sharp turns upend Hanson's reality in the same way that an optical illusion fools the brain, until reality intrudes. In this case, those intrusions are sharp and harsh, minus the gruesome violence that's usually part of the solution in similarly styled American films.
The cast of actors is deliciously low-key, which carries a certain power of its own. There's something about watching a movie filled with unknown actors that gives it an extra punch, because you have no expectations of who they should be, based on previously established personae. And that's true here.
There's more than a little irony to the title Terribly Happy. But it's best savored by seeing the film, a deliciously dark and offbeat surprise.