Film Review: Under the Tree

A neighborhood squabble turns into a no-holds-barred battle in this dark Icelandic comedy.
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Eybjorg is annoyed. She’d like to sit on her patio and soak up a little sun, but her neighbors’ tree casts a looming shadow. She sends her husband over to demand they prune it.

And by the time it is finally cut back—rather dramatically, and excessively—there will be police reports, nervous breakdowns, emergency-room visits and a couple of deaths.

Maybe she should have just moved her chaise lounge a little to the left?

This is the world of Under the Tree, a small, dark Icelandic film that feels uncomfortably appropriate in our current era of escalation, a time in which the easiest thing to believe is the worst, and no disagreement can ever be abandoned before it’s turned into all-out war.

Blackly, bleakly funny, the film restricts its cast to three couples. Konrad and Eybjorg (Þorsteinn Bachmann and Selma Björnsdóttir) are 40-ish, and determinedly trying to conceive. Their neighbors Baldwin and Inga (Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Edda Björgvinsdóttir) are locked in separate silences, Inga still grieving over a lost, favorite son.

Meanwhile, Baldwin and Inga’s other boy—Atli, played by Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson—just got caught by his wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir), panting over old sex tapes of a former girlfriend. So Agnes immediately throws him out of the house, changes the locks and tells him not to even think about seeing their four-year-old again.

Clearly there are a lot of potential conflicts here, although even the most troubled character—brooding, bitter Inga—might benefit hugely from some care and comfort and conversation. But people here don’t have conversations, they make accusations. And then, without waiting for an explanation—or even wanting one—they turn on their heels and storm away.

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s film is uncomfortably intimate, with Monika Lenczewska’s cinematography, often handheld, pushing in for tight close-ups of people who remain as cold as the boxy condos and identical suburban townhouses they live in.

And in a movie full of fine performances, particularly good is Björgvinsdóttir as the dangerously obsessed Inga. Still waiting for her “missing” son to come home (everyone else has long ago assumed he killed himself), she works carefully at building everyday resentments into rage. Because if she couldn’t make her heart beat fast with hate, how would she even know she was still alive?

Although the film is set in the suburbs of Reykjavik, its small, sly observations about upper-class privilege are universal—the crunchy-granola nursery-school teacher with the extravagant man bun, the exasperating co-op board meeting where neighbors gather to drink bad coffee and complain. You may recognize some of your own friends and neighbors onscreen.

But then Inga quietly decides to leave even uncivil society behind—and embarks on a mission of such extraordinary, inhuman malice it would make even Medea shake her head in awe.

Be warned: Her final fit of revenge involves an act so amazingly over-the-top, it walks the knife-edge between black comedy and sick misanthropy. (And animal lovers, consider this a special warning.) And the film’s closing moments go even further, ending everything in an orgy of violent, senseless destruction that risk pushing the film into absurdity.

But this is what happens, Sigurdsson suggests, when action is valued over reflection, revenge over reconciliation. And every small spark of discontent is lovingly fed and tended until it bursts into a flame ready to burn down the world.

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