Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s intention was to create a war film where home is the battlefield, and, he succeeds; the multi-award-winning Under the Tree is a deliciously dark satire that examines the fragile nature of civility in a suburban setting, where it can take very little to provoke savagery and the collapse of a delicate social order.
Here, the point of dissonance is the titular tree, introduced via a comical overhead shot that demonstrates its out-of-proportion largeness and the vast shadow it casts on next door’s garden. Eybjörg wants it cut down as it interferes with her sun-bathing. Inga despises the younger woman and refuses to allow husband Baldvin to keep the peace and call a tree surgeon. Meanwhile, Atli, the older couple’s son, has moved back in with his parents, having been kicked out by his wife after she discovers him watching homemade porn starring himself and another woman.
So far, so sitcom, but Under the Tree boasts far more to its comic chops. A steady pace quietly observes the escalation of the two concurrent plots; the women’s feud grows vicious, name-calling giving way to vandalism and toe-curlingly worse as Inga’s bitterness takes over her rationale, while Atli’s behaviour is erratic, as he tries to gain access to his daughter. Underpinning the absurdity is an excellent soundtrack that almost solely creates an unusual thriller element, ratcheting up a sense of unease that leads to a violent and bloody denouement that is at once expected—the men have no choice but to act out the roles designated to them by proxy—but no less shocking for it. All is told via a muted, pastel palette that reflects the mundanity of the neighbourhood, in amusing contrast to the characters’ unhinged and disproportionate actions.
The final shot is predictable but demonstrates the futility of revenge, wrapping Under the Tree in a neat bow as a fable with an important lesson: to coexist peacefully in our communities and be willing to compromise before it’s too late.
Under the Tree opens on 10 August