Thomas Schlamme

A southern Jutland village hides as many secrets as the nearby bog in Danish helmer Henrik Ruben Genz's "Terribly Happy."

A southern Jutland village hides as many secrets as the nearby bog in Danish helmer Henrik Ruben Genz’s “Terribly Happy,” a blackly comic thriller about the universal nature of compromise and corruption. Entertaining and full of surprising twists, this highly cinematic tale of a Copenhagen policeman working punishment duty in the provinces plays with genre in a manner that can be compared with the Coen brothers or David Lynch. Already sold to the Czech Republic in advance of its Karlovy Vary world preem, the flawlessly cast and mounted pic opens domestically in October, and could also gladden the skeds of boutique distribs and global broadcasters.

Tightly wound 30-ish cop Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is transferred to the small border town of Skarrild after a mental breakdown and an initially unspecified infraction. It’s a place where the clannish locals scorn by-the-book law enforcement, relying instead on their own unique brand of frontier justice, and outsiders either adapt or disappear. By the yarn’s end, the refrain “It’s not how we do things here” has become both sinister and cynical.

When another outsider, the alluring Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen), tries to enlist Robert’s help in escaping from her abusive husband Jorgen (Kim Bodnia) in scenes that cunningly mirror film noir, the stage seems to be set for a formulaic love triangle. However, the smart, tightly constructed script by Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen cleverly defies expectations as it knowingly toys with genre conventions. Among its many inspired moments is a showdown between Robert and Jorgen, staged as a drinking contest rather than a shootout.

In what reps his best work by far, Genz (“Chinaman,” “Someone Like Hodder”), who was raised in southern Jutland, sustains a unique tone that smoothly incorporates Western, noir, horror and psychological-thriller elements without feeling like pastiche. His inventive visual and aural motifs accrete meaning in ominous and comic ways.

From leading players to character bits, all perfs are perfectly in tune with pic’s aesthetic, with Bodnia’s bad guy as memorably menacing as Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet.” Relative newcomer Cedergren proves his acting chops as the beleaguered Marshall, commandingly holding the screen even when literally and figuratively knee-deep in muck.

Entire tech package is impressive. Jorgen Johansson’s coolly precise widescreen cinematography makes the landscape a character in the drama, while Kasper Leick’s pacey editing ratchets up the tension. Kare Bjerko’s atmospheric country-Western-tinged score goes the distance from foreboding to mocking. Production and sound design are tops.

Pic was adapted from a novel by best-selling Danish author Erling Jepsen, another south Jutlander, whose work also inspired Peter Schonau Fog’s “The Art of Crying.”

Terribly Happy

Denmark

Production

A Nordisk release and presentation of a Fine and Mellow production, in co-production with DR, Nordisk Film, with support from the Danish Film Institute. (International sales: TrustNordisk, Hvidovre, Denmark.) Produced by Thomas Gammeltoft, Tina Dalhoff. Directed by Henrik Ruben Genz. Screenplay, Genz, Dunja Gry Jensen, based on a novel by Erling Jepsen.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Jorgen Johansson; editor, Kasper Leick; music, Kare Bjerko; production designer, Niels Sejer; sound (Dolby Digital), Roar Skau Olsen. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 5, 2008. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Jakob Cedergren, Kim Bodnia, Lene Maria Christensen, Lars Brygmann.
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