Directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
Starring Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir
This Scandinavian film may appear to be set in sunny weather, but it’s a frosty affair of neighbourly bitterness and vengeance. It all begins when a young couple complain to the older couple living next door about the tree casting a shadow over their back-yard and blocking the beautiful Nordic sun-light – petty tensions escalate from here into wildly savage and sometimes grotesquely theatrical back-and-forths (and get even worse from there), with personal problems and misunderstandings added to the mix.
This kind of acerbic tale of tensions spiralling horribly out of control sounds like quite the cheery film for misanthropes, but Under the Tree is held back as it struggles with a tone to stick to. Is this a drama or a comedy? Or is it a dramedy? Or a tragi-comedy? Or is it just trying to be tragic? It is one of those sorts of genre confused films that gives you that unsatisfying feeling of waiting for a laugh (if ever) for 80-something minutes, which is a thankfully short run-time even if it feels half an hour longer.
This sort of tonal confusion doesn’t sit well with how intensely pugnacious the humour gets – it’s hard to gain laughs from such horrifying moments of vengeance when there’s no punch-line, leaving you gasping for breath as you await laughter. But these situations that get cooked up by such nasty neighbours don’t seem to take themselves seriously enough to be regarded as wholly dramatic, leaving the viewer wondering how exactly they should feel after each scene. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’ equally dry work such as The Lobster, but the problem is it doesn’t have the playfulness of his films.
To be fair, the film does ratchet up its enjoyable ludicrousness to visceral levels with quite a memorable ending, even if it comes a bit too late. This finale showdown of these hateful and spiteful characters that comes to a gleefully horrific conclusion is made all the more effective by seemingly coming out of nowhere.
With the more empathetic characters taking more of a backseat and the less empathetic characters put front and centre, Under the Tree presents itself in a tonally confused manner that may just be lost in translation, but it puts viewers in such uncomfortable moods that can’t even be enjoyed masochistically. If you like watching ferocious neighbourhood battles no matter how they’re presented, more power to you, and you’re likely to be left giddy by the audacious climax to this brutal insight into Iceland.
Under the Tree plays at UWA Somerville from Monday, March 12 to Sunday, March 18, 7:30pm, and at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday, March 20 to Sunday, March 25, 7:30pm.