Jakob Cedergren, in 'Terribly Happy'

Dir. Henrik Ruben Genz
(2010, Not Rated, 99 min)
★ ★ ★

When the Danish thriller Terribly Happy starts it seems to be built on cliches. Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a big city Copenhagen cop, is transferred to a quiet village after a nervous breakdown. It’s a small town where nothing happens, which of course is a guarantee to the audience that something will happen. He meets Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), a young mother who is possibly being abused by her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia). They begin a flirtation less out of mutual attraction than at the insistence of the screenplay.

Then comes a twist I found completely preposterous. I won’t reveal it or any more of the plot, but I didn’t buy it. The film lost me and would never get me back.

Then it got me back. What comes after the twist is a taut and absorbing thriller that is at first about keeping secrets at all costs but finally about this little town and its ordinary people and who they are and what they do. Director Henrik Ruben Genz does a terrific job of generating and sustaining suspense and throughout the film makes great use of images and sounds: a crossroads in the middle of nowhere that leads to a mysterious bog, the shot of a child being handed off from one man to another across the street, the rhythmic squeaks of a stroller’s wheels as it’s pushed through the town at night. At one point early on, Robert notices that a shopkeeper has disappeared. How? Why? “The way people disappear here,” he’s told ominously. The setup of Terribly Happy is a haywire melodrama. But as a portrait of a town, with its endless roads, bogs, and nothingness just outside the city limits, it’s eerie and mesmerizing.

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