Under The Tree (Undir trénu)

Iceland (2017) Dir. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

It’s amazing how things can escalate from a harmless neighbourly request to full on war of attrition but people are funny like that. Naturally, we don’t like to think our neighbours could be that unreasonable or petty, but you never can tell as this jet-black satire from Iceland explores…

Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is summarily kicked out of his home by his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) when she catches him “enjoying” a sex video of him with an ex-girlfriend, forcing him to move back home to his parents. The timing is unfortunate as the family are grieving the recent death of Atli’s brother Uggi, which his mother, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), hasn’t been able to reconcile yet.

Meanwhile Atli’s father Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is asked by neighbour Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) if he could trim the huge tree in their garden as it casts a shadow over their patio, which his new wife Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) is upset about. Baldvin is happy to oblige but Inga is hostile towards the idea and her neighbours for suggesting it, leading to a messy tit-for-tat battle that can only end in disaster.

Describing Under The Tree as “jet black” is being very generous. I must confess, the few Icelandic comedies I have seen didn’t come across as comedies, dark or otherwise, and this trend of imperceptible humour continues here. Maybe it is me or perhaps it is how, everything is played out completely straight but I’m sure others might be on the same wavelength if their taste in gallows humour is equally without boundary.

However, the big difference is this film has a decent story at its heart to keep it all in context, one that is accessible, easy to follow and works just as efficiently as a mordant drama; even if one doesn’t laugh or see where the joke is, much of the content during the feud is through-the-fingers excessive enough to denote where director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson expects the audience to have a giggle.

The message being imparted here seems to be more than an idiosyncratic war – it warns us of the dangers of not being able to face up to the inevitabilities of life whether for the best or worst. This seems an extreme way to go about it yet despite its good intentions it does wander into that mean spirited territory which could have been offset by being played for laughs, as I imagine a Hollywood remake would.

Essentially, there are two major plots here which converge by the end, neither distracted by subplots to fill the time, and with just 88 minutes to fill this is just as well. Atli’s marriage woes kicks off the film, starting with Agnes catching him in the act of self-pleasure to his own sex film. One obvious laugh is Atli protesting his innocence having shut down his laptop, unaware the film is still playing on his desktop monitor!

Agnes sees this as infidelity and orders Atli out of the house yet he insists it is no such thing. Throughout the film Atli refuses to accept any wrongdoing and continues to get angry with Agnes for maintaining her stance of being cheated on, despite the clip being before she met him. Even when this point is made clear, how is Agnes meant to feel that Atli has kept an intimate recording from a past relationship during their marriage which has produced a daughter?  

It is not difficult to be frustrated by Atli’s pig headedness and stubborn refusal to accept culpability, and he only makes matters worse when trying to see daughter Asa (Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving) despite being legally frozen out as her custodian. Not really any laughs here but a series of vignettes that paint Atli as an immature oaf and Agnes as a saint for putting up with him.

Back at home and the feud over the tree escalates quickly when Inga sneers at trophy wife neighbour Eybjorg as the troublemaker since Konrad’s first wife never complained. The first blow comes when Inga throws the mess from Eybjorg’s dog at her; the next morning the tyres of Baldvin’s car are slashed; Inga’s cat goes missing and in suspecting the neighbours, extracts a particularly nasty revenge that will upset fellow dog lovers.

Yet the root (pardon the pun) of this isn’t really the tree or the neighbours at all, it’s the death of Atli’s brother. While nothing specific is disclosed, Uggi is apparently missing presumed dead by everyone except Inga, thus the idea the world can happily continue to exist when she has no answers has made her a deeply embittered woman. It doesn’t excuse her behaviour but frames it as a symptom of her repressed emotional torture.

Quite how Sigurðsson expected to derive any comedy from this I don’t know, so viewing this as an edgy drama is best to make this an edifying experience. That it is all played out so straight makes it more terrifying than funny; even the silliness of the climax has us wondering “how much further can this go?”. Thankfully, it ends at the right time with a devastating, squirm-inducing denouement, a simple tableau that crystallises everything Sigurðsson was aiming for.

This uncomfortably gnarly, tragic implosion of a family unit and neighbourly friendship is captured through a dispassionate lens that renders the viewer helpless in hoping a civil resolve can be reached in both disputes as neither side is willing to yield. It is the cinematic equivalent of a bride and groom watching their multi-tier wedding cake topple before their eyes just as they go to cut it.

With a top notch cast clearly in sync with Sigurðsson’s vision – Edda Björgvinsdóttir is terrifying as Inga – to make us believe every single moment of the madness we see, Under The Tree has important life lessons to share, only without the purported laughs. Its impact is more rabbit punches than bruising shots to the solar plexus, but a fine curio nonetheless