Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, 2017) Iceland

Reviewed by Hollyn Heron. Viewed at Santa Barbara International Film Festival

When a film is described as a “dark comedy,” one would have the assumption that the film you are about to see has some comedic performances interwoven in a dark plot.

That is not the case with Under the Tree.

Directed and co-written by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (Paris of the North, Either Way), this tale of a bitter dispute between a married couple, and a couple of neighbors arguing over a tree, had a promising premise, but failed to deliver a comedy element. Without a comic relief aspect, the film was dark, and downright disturbing at times. Combined with an inefficient script, and lackluster performances, Under the Tree struggles for redeeming qualities. One thing that can be said for this film, is cinematographer Monika Lenczewska (Message from the King, Imperial Dreams) and editor Kristján Loðmfjörð (Paris of the North, Seeing Eye Dog) at least work  make the film aesthetically pleasing. Using POV shots from a security camera, and showing the titular tree as breaks between dramatic scenes, the visuals make somewhat of an attempt to carry the film. 

It all begins when Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) catches her husband, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) watching a porn he made with his ex-girlfriend. Agnes throws Atli out of the house,   forcing him to go live with his aging parents, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson). While Agnes and Atli are involved in an ugly custody battle, Atli’s parents are in a battle of wills against their next door neighbors. Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) and Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) are insisting that Inga and Baldvin do something about their overgrown tree, that is beginning to cast a shadow over their yard. While Baldvin says he will get to it, Inga is insistant that the tree stays. Still grieving over her other son who she says disappeared, but everyone else knows he killed himself, Inga finds solace in a bottle of wine and her daily ritual of tormenting the neighbors. This is the part of the film that had the potential to be comedic, but failed to do so. While there were moments when the quarrel seemed to try to take a comedic turn, Inga’s irrationality and extreme behavior hindered what little comedic value the film might have had. The most insufferable thing Inga does is she kidnaps Eybjorg’s beloved dog, Askur, and has him put to sleep. But she doesn’t draw the line there. After having him put down, she has him stuffed so she can leave the dog on her neighbors porch to greet them. This definitely goes beyond a quarrel over a shady tree, and was not only traumatic, but tasteless. 

Another thing about this film that makes it so unsatisfying, is the lack of a protagonist. Not a single character in this film had a redeeming quality about them. Every single character in this film was irrational and crazy. While most films have you rooting for at least one side of a dispute, this film made it difficult to care for any character, since every person in this film was a complete garbage bag of a human being. Even Eybjorg and Konrad, though more victims than Inga and Balvin, were pretentious, self-centered jerks. And as for Agnes and Atli, their story was just as sadistic as the neighbor’s feuding; with Agnes denying Atli any parental rights, and refusing to discuss any potential agreement with him.

To say the least, this film was disappointing.

 

 

 

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