The winner of the Crystal Globe for best in fest at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, Terribly Happy plays a lot like many confusing detective stories that have come before it, but thanks to an unusual setting, it manages to showcase enough of its own personality that I can't honestly claim that it's a mere retread of worn-out film noir tropes. At its best, it suggests a Danish version of Twin Peaks (the early episodes, when it's all about setting up the characters, not the later episodes, when there's a POV weasel-cam), though it spends a bit more time at its worst, particularly in the achingly slow finale that devolves into a routine series of coincidences. I'm not certain that Henrik Ruben Genz was absolutely deserving of the Chicago Film Festival's Silver Hugo for Best Director, on account of his "great storytelling full of surprises, overturning all expectations of genre", but there's no denying that when everything clicks, this is an awfully interesting crime picture.

Ostensibly based on a true story (though given how it ends, I can hardly see how this would be the case), Terribly Happy centers on Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren), a disgraced cop who is sent to a tiny town surrounded by bogs in the south of the country, as a restorative sabbatical/punishment to redress something that happened while he was in Copenhagen; whatever it was, apparently it was bad enough to end Hansen's marriage and leave him with no legal recourse to see his daughter. So he's not particularly happy about his lot in life, and the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the town don't really put his mind at ease: the locals are entirely unwilling to trust outsiders, and have their own code of conduct that would apparently render a robust police presence moot. A shoplifting minor is dealt with by giving him a good whack on the head (to Hansen's horror), and most serious disagreements are resolved by the parties involved without anyone else so much as commenting on the problems; leaving Hansen with nothing to do but sit around his office and drink soda at the bar every night.

Things start to become strange (naturally) when Hansen meets Ingerlise (Lena Maria Christensen), another outsider, trapped in an abusive marriage to the town bully Jørgen (Kim Bodnia). Everyone knows what's happening, and everyone knows that when the couple's little girl takes her doll stroller out for a walk at night (as seems to happen every night), it means that her daddy is beating the crap out of her mommy, but nobody seems anxious to stop it, not even Ingerlise herself, who refuses to file charges against her husband no matter how much Hansen pleads. Nevertheless, she comes by the police station almost every day to hint around that if Hansen wants to help, maybe he'd like to take care of matters in a manner not entirely prescribed by law. Meanwhile, the cop grows increasingly infatuated with the battered woman, despite the screams from the audience that he really doesn't want to go there. When he does, the inevitable shit goes down, although "inevitable for this town" and "inevitable for normal people" don't turn out to be the same thing.

There's really nothing you can do to make this narrative any more original and exciting than it sounds; and it suffers quite a bit from having an unsympathetic protagonist who absolutely ought to know better than to get himself caught in the local intrigues so much as does, especially given the cryptic warnings he's given about how his predecessor, along with everyone else who's threatened the delicate balance of the local system, has disappeared without a trace. But the local color is exceptionally colorful in this town, and in the first 45 minutes or so, Genz does a really top-notch job of showcasing all of the various people and plot threads involved in a way that makes them seem both unhinged and creepy, but also somehow appealing. The dour Danish backdrop matches the story perfectly; sometimes when the world is grey and clammy, you don't need black-and-white to create a noir universe.

But atmosphere only gets you so far, and the film starts to chafe under its screenplay. The cop-out ending is a bit of a groaner, but it's got nothing on all the portentous leering and paranoia that creep in around the 1-hour mark. The world stops being atmospheric and becomes a cartoon, and it's awfully hard to continue caring about Hansen in any way - that kind of toxic stupidity doesn't deserve our sympathy, and without that the film begins to flounder in search of a hero whose fate is of more than sporting interest to the audience. There's enough great imagery and weirdly entertaining sequences to make the film worth a peek, but ultimately, Terribly Happy is vaguely unsatisfying.