Henrik Ruben Genz’s ironically titled thriller Terribly Happy begins with frazzled lawman Jakob Cedergren being reassigned to South Jutland, one of those small, insular communities where the same word means “hello” and “goodbye”—as though saying any more would be some kind of big-city extravagance. Cedergren is looking for a reduction in stress after some domestic drama in Copenhagen, but a dawning awareness of his own uselessness in SJ puts him even more on edge. The village has very little crime, and the locals prefer to mete out justice on their own terms, by giving perps a good swat and then sending them on their way, rather than bothering with tickets and jails. They don’t take kindly to Cedergren’s attempt to restore order in general, and they especially don’t like it when he tries to protect the overly friendly Lene Maria Christensen from her brutish husband, Kim Bodnia. When Cedergren is responsible for a tragic accident, he tries to cover his tracks while administering some backdoor justice, all while realizing that if his new neighbors learn the truth, he’ll likely be done for.
Based on an Erling Jepsen novel (and co-scripted by Genz and Gry Dunja Jensen), Terribly Happy looks and feels like standard noir, only in terse Danish instead of terse English. But cinematographer Jørgen Johansson gives the movie a striking look, replacing noir’s classic black-and-white with a contrast between reddish-brown (like dried blood) and chilly blue (like an old bruise). And Cedergren makes a compelling protagonist: a sad-sack with an impulsive nature and a hero complex that makes him a lot more like the movie’s villain than he can immediately recognize. Terribly Happy keeps circling back to a bog on the outskirts of town, where the locals tend to drag their old junk, dead livestock, and darkest secrets. With every grim turn the story takes—and it takes several—Genz makes that bog more of a metaphor for how people act rashly, then try to forge ahead as though nothing happened. This is a smart, melancholy crime picture, which takes its cues from the title of the perverse old standard Christensen plays on her stereo at night: “You Always Hurt The One You Love.”