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February 21, 2010

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Moody view of corruption

YEARS of movie going have familiarized us with tales of city folk waylaid in country towns -- quirky Southern backwaters and dusty desert holes. It turns out that the convention works especially well in, of all places, rural Denmark.

"Terribly Happy," the Danish foreign film submission to the Oscars, transplants a familiar genre to a small, sparsely populated village on the gray plains of southern Jutland.

A police officer, Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren), arrives from Copenhagen, transferred for something bad enough to get him cast off to the sticks.

The town is desolate. A grim bog lurks on the outskirts, a swampy pit that, we are told, can swallow a cow whole.

The craggy, shifty townspeople seem to regard it as the local courthouse, and a liberally used one, at that.

Locals use the same word for goodbye and hello -- "mojn" -- a salutation that suggests coming and going might as well be the same thing.

Hanson, clean-cut and upright, arrives with a "by the book" mentality that immediately chafes with the locals, who keep him off balance. Stoically hunched over their beers in the town pub, they bewilder him by knowing his every move.

The authority they better respect is Jorgen (Kim Bodnia), a grizzled and stout tyrant in a cowboy hat. Hanson quickly makes himself Jorgen's enemy by becoming friendly and protective of his attractive, abused wife, Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen).

It would be a simple enough film if, once the violence picked up, we were left to root for Hansen to outwit the crafty country bumpkins, resist their femme fatale and keep from being sucked into the bog.

But "Terribly Happy" throws several wrinkles into the old formula that reveal a much broader and cynical view of corruption. By the end, there is no distance between city and country.

"Terribly Happy," directed by Henrick Ruben Genz, is all moodiness, midnight black comedy and noir mystery. That has earned the film comparisons to a Coen brothers movie, but "Terribly Happy" is more straightforward and less self-aware.

The commonality, though, is that Genz playfully inverts genres: the proverbial showdown happens not as a shoot-out but a drinking contest.

Cinematographer Jorgen Johansson uses a cool, drab pallet to create the tense atmosphere.

Evoking the danger of being swallowed up, the camera repeatedly peers at boots meeting the ground, (including a heart-stopping "Tell-Tale Heart" allusion).


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