Talk about tough towns. The remote village that Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen finds himself transferred to in “Terribly Happy” is more than just unwelcoming: It’s deeply creepy. The marshal who preceded Hansen in this one-man-police-force job has disappeared, for some unexplained reason, and the rustics who congregate at the local tavern whisper and leer whenever the new arrival walks in — they seem to know more about him than they really should. There’s also a little girl who walks the empty streets in the dead of night pushing a baby-less stroller; and in a desolate bog on the outskirts of town, somebody’s car is slowly sinking into the muck.
The movie is wonderfully warped. There are overtones of horror and noirish depravity that recall both the 1973 cult film “The Wicker Man” and Shirley Jackson’s famous 1948 short story, “The Lottery.” But “Terribly Happy,” which was Denmark’s submission in the foreign-language category for this year’s Oscars (and will soon be remade in English), has a mind-knotting fascination of its own. Working from an adaptation of an Erling Jepsen novel by screenwriter Dunja Gry Jensen, director Henrik Ruben Genz builds tension in oblique increments. We see that the downcast Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) isn’t quite right in the head himself — he screwed up in Copenhagen (exactly how, we don’t learn till late in the film), and this reassignment to the faraway village of Skarrild is his only chance to salvage his career. The troubled cop is already taking anti-anxiety medication — with which the local doctor (Lars Brygmann) is oddly eager to keep him well-supplied — and the director presents the flat, featureless landscape as an emblem of his isolation and unease.
The villagers have their own sinister way of doing things. Errant children — young shoplifters, say — are smacked around rather than turned in for official discipline, and their elders encourage Hansen to follow suit. Troublesome wives are similarly dealt with. When an attractive woman named Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) turns up in Hansen’s office to show him the bruises inflicted by her husband, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia), the town bully, the marshal urges her to file a complaint — something she’s mysteriously unwilling to do. Instead, she starts coming on to him, in classic femme-fatale fashion, luring Hansen to what seems very likely to be his doom.
The picture is suffused with a sense of menace, and it’s so artfully constructed that it gives you the sweats right up to the end. What’s going on in this strange place? What are these people hiding? And who can Hansen trust? He’ll be damned if he knows.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Terribly Happy.”
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