Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Theaters: "Terribly Happy"

Henrik Ruben Ganz’s Terribly Happy begins with a horrible story of a two-headed cow, and how it drove a small village insane before they took it down to the bog. Turns out they take a lot of their problems to the bog in this town. “This story is based on true events,” ends the opening voice-over. God I hope they’re kidding.

One of the dangers of taking in as many movies as I do is that you become so immune to the formulas and structures, you can figure out the general direction that most films are going. If you give Terribly Happy nothing else, you must give it this: you do not know what’s coming next. It begins as something like Hot Fuzz, but played straight—Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) has been reassigned to the sleepy hamlet after an accident on the job (“I did something terrible,” is about all he’ll say on it), and fails immediately at fitting in. In those early scenes, Ganz exhibits a squirrely sense of pace and place, scoring a few easy laughs while simultaneously building a Lynchian atmosphere of intangible dread. Hansen visits a shop but finds that the shopkeeper has disappeared; “The way people disappear here,” a passing woman begins to stay, and then stops herself. “I’d better not say more.”

When the woman begins popping up more often, we slowly realize that she’s this backwater’s femme fatale, and that Ganz is conjuring up a noir story in a particularly non-noir setting. Her name is Ingerlise, and she’s played by Lene Maria Christensen with a potent mix of earthy sensuality, good humor, stark victimization, and bad-girl cajones. She takes utter delight in making Robert uncomfortable, but she’s hooking the bait for her real pitch: “It’s all mud, cows, and rubber boots… take me away from here.”

The trouble, of course, is that she’s married—to a fierce, violent, abusive drunk named Jørgen (a truly chilling actor named Kim Bodnia). When they fight, their daughter takes her dolls out for a walk in a squeaky baby carriage, and the piercing sound of those wheels alerts the town: they’re at it again. But once Robert is hooked, he can’t ignore those sounds like everyone else. He heads over to stop it.

What happens when he arrives, I shall not reveal. I will note that, at the screening I attended, one of my fellow critics couldn’t stop complaining that what followed was “unrealistic,” and that she was stunned by the policeman’s “lack of morality.” She’s throwing around jargon that’s clearly not part of the table set by the picture; by this point we’re deep into a noir-styled darkly comic thriller, and ma’am, realism and morality don’t enter into it.

What happens next is tensely staged and undeniably compelling, and the rest of the picture unwinds with precision and smooth, unfaltering logic. The unfamiliar locations and foreign tongues discombobulate us at first, but Ganz is clearly riffing on modern dusty thrillers like Red Rock West; indeed, in its stylish photography and clockwork storytelling, it’s like a Danish Blood Simple, but with enough dark humor and well-earned thrills that, yes, it did remind me of Hitchcock (particularly in one unforgivably frightening moment on a staircase).

The screenplay (by Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen) brings the tightly-wound story to a good, bloody, sinister climax, even if the wrap-up is a touch too tidy. There will, no doubt, be plenty of viewers like my screening colleague who find the picture ridiculous, who find its storytelling implausible, who miss its allusions to other works of cinema, or don’t care about them. Those folks know who they are, and will surely stay away. For the rest of us, Terribly Happy is a taut, well-made thriller, and a good time to boot.

"Terribly Happy" opens Friday, February 5th in limited release.

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