Film Review: UNDER THE TREE (Iceland/Denmark/Poland/Germany 2017) ***1/2

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Under the Tree Poster
Clip

When Baldwin and Inga’s next door neighbours complain that a tree in their backyard casts a shadow over their sundeck, what starts off as a typical spat between neighbours in the suburbs unexpectedly and violently spirals out of control.

Writers:

Huldar Breiðfjörð (story and screenplay), Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (screenplay)

 

UNDER THE TREE is a simple story that unfolds in all its unpredictability and horror.  It is trouble for two neighbours, something that many can relate to.  The shade from a front yard tree brings tensions to a boil for two families in an Icelandic suburb.  The husbands Baldvin (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) have a small argument over trimming the big tree as Konrad’s wife, Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) likes to lie in the sun and does not want the shade from the tree.  But the wives argue.  The tires of  a car are slashed followed by rude gnomes ornaments placed in the front of the house.  Then when the cat goes missing, all hell breaks lose.  

Amidst the arguing, there is a subplot of the son, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) losing custody of his daughter after cheating on his wife., Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir).   

Director Sigurdsson knows how to up the angst, as evident at the film’s start, the wife catches the son watching porn.  “Is that you in the porn?”  she suddenly notices.  “Isn’t that Rakel in it with you in the porn?”  she asks again before kicking him out of the house and taking custody of their daughter.  Again this is an incident that many separated couple go through, fighting for custody.   Sigurdsson also keeps certain factors unknown to keep the audience guessing.  Did the neighbour really slash the tires?  Did the neighbour really put in the gnomes?  And where is that darn cat that has disappeared, though the final incident is revealed at the end of the film.

Sigurdsson keeps his film engaging from start to end by making his characters real, reacting and doing things that normal people all over the world might end up doing, when pushed to the limit.  

Of all the characters, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) seems the nastiest.  She seems to be director Edda Björgvinsdóttir’s favourite. Inga slings dog shit at Eybjorg, calls her a cow and even calls her son a loser when he cheats on his wife.  The wives inch their husbands, who seem more tolerant, on.

Besides the black comedy, the film also contains segments of dramatic tension, like in the ones where Atli abducts his daughter or when he abuses her at her workplace.

The film is shot in the suburbs of the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik.  These houses are modern looking, colourful, modest and too close to each other for comfort.   Trees and sun are scarce in Iceland so one can understand a neighbour not wanting the shade and the other not wanting his tree touched.

Edda Björgvinsdóttir’s film demonstrates the worst there is in human beings, creating a dark comedy at its blackest. His characters are unforgiving (Agnes cannot forgive Atli for cheating), vindictive (Agnes calls her cheating husband out as a masturbator of sex videos he indulges in, at a community meeting) and cowardly.

The ending comes with a good twist that leaves audiences satisfied that they have seen a really black comedy/drama.  The film dominated the Edda Awards (Icelandic equivalent of the Oscars) with seven wins, including best film, director, actor (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), actress (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), supporting actor (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), screenplay and visual effects.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU7KeDwJCAc

 

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