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Down Town

March 5, 2010

Jakob Cedergren is in over his head in Terribly Happy.

Skarrild is the kind of town where the locals have reserved seats at the town’s only bar. The kind of town surrounded by flat, muddy fields, with one-lane roads disappearing into the horizon. The kind of town that’s small enough for residents to be referred to as “the priest,” “the doctor” and even “the shopkeeper.” The kind of town where the only sound at night is the creaking wheels of a baby carriage pushed by a little girl in a red coat. In other words, the kind of town that’s the perfect setting for a neo-noir—or perhaps a horror movie.

One of the great pleasures of Terribly Happy is that you don’t quite know what direction the story will take until half-way through the film. By that point, director Henrik Ruben Ganz has done such a fine job building suspense and creating an atmosphere of mystery that he makes the inevitable seem surprising.

Set in the marshlands of southern Denmark, Terribly Happy is built on a delicately balanced mix of noir and horror elements. The hero is Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a policeman from Copenhagen exiled to the hinterlands for an unknown indiscretion. A terribly good-looking actor with Matt Damon’s eyes, Ben Affleck’s facial structure and Matthew McConaughey’s mustache, Cedergren plays Robert to passive perfection. We’re not sure if he’s too smart or too stupid for his own good. One of the first people he meets is Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), a strangely friendly blonde who’s married to Jorgen Buhl (Kim Bodnia), the town bully. So far, so noir.

But the townspeople are a mysterious and reticent bunch, never missing an opportunity to remind Robert that things are done a certain way in Skarrild. What way that is, they don’t say. But it has something to do with the bog outside of town, where the top of a submerged car pokes out of the muck.

When Robert inevitably gets embroiled in an affair with Ingerlise, everyone in the town knows instantly, including Jorgen. In Skarrild, everyone knows everything about everyone, even things that didn’t happen, or that they couldn’t possibly have witnessed. How—and if—Robert will get out of this mess (which is to say, Skarrild) is the film’s primary narrative mystery.

Ganz toes the line between genres through a combination of narrative discretion and ambiguous imagery. He only shares secrets when they will add to the suspense. With a Coens-like attention to symmetry and color contrast, Ganz repeatedly revisits the same exterior shots of the town’s few note-worthy locations: the bar, the shop, the Buhls’ house. As in the Coen brothers’ films, the locations gain ominous weight but indeterminate meaning each time the camera returns.

In the spirit of the best neo-noirs and horror films, Ganz uses humor to temporarily alleviate the ever-rising tension. As the film makes its way to a deliciously, if predictably, ironic conclusion, the humor flags. By that point, I didn’t care. All I wanted to know is just what kind of town Skarrild really is.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    March 6, 2010 2:46 pm

    Is a Coens comparison required for every review of this one? Both the Globe and the Times spend a lot of time equating this with Blood Simple.

    By the way, Ganz has apparently already announced that he’ll be remaking this in the US

  2. March 7, 2010 2:58 pm

    Probably, but that’s only because the film is just so damn Coens-ian. I didn’t read any of the other reviews of the film before seeing it; I think we all came to the same conclusion independently.

    After I wrote this, I read some other reviews. The other required reference is David Lynch.

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