FILM REVIEW:  "Under the Tree" throws shade on neighbourhood warfare

FILM REVIEW: "Under the Tree" throws shade on neighbourhood warfare

"Love thy neighbour as thyself. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."  - This is the exact opposite of Under The Tree.

Written and directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, Under The Tree is an Icelandic dark comedy/drama in which two neighbouring families, who are each hiding from their own personal problems, begin an increasingly tempestuous neighbourhood warfare that sparks from a trees inconvenient shadow.

A disgraced father Alti, is kicked out by his wife Agnes, and separated from his daughter, Asa, forcing him to move back in with his jaded elderly parents, Inga and Baldvin, who have become overly protective of their pets and possessions following a tragedy. Across the fence lives middle-aged Konrad and his trophy wife Eybjorg, who are failing to conceive, fearful of aging and having their picturesque patio blocked by Inga and Bladvin’s tree.

Under The Tree is a pitch black comedy, it’s Neighbours on crystal meth.

The opening sequence of a hilarious marital breakdown, thanks to a self-produced porno, is the only time the film can properly be defined as a comedy. Ironically, the following marital breakdown narrative is a pitiful display of an increasingly disgraced and desperate father trying to receive joint custody of his daughter.

The majority of the humour in Under The Tree is the ridiculous nature of the warring neighbours, who are pessimistic and vengeful towards each other after a brief argument and unfortunately timed incidents. The most fun and funniest part of the film is seeing how the neighbours will strike at one and other, be it intrusive garden gnomes or disappearing pets.

However, these retaliations are often undercut by a gut punch. As the retaliations go along they become less comedic and side-splitting and more bloodied and stomach churning.

Under The Tree shines in performance, story, and wit when it focuses on the neighbourhood warfare. However, the centerpiece of the film is Alti and Agnes’ marital breakdown. This is the moral compass of the film, and the only subplot with an emotional arch and finale. It juxtaposes the breakdown, pessimism, and violence of the battling older neighbours, who you would expect better problem-solving behaviour from.

Alti and Agnes are amusing and strongly performed (played by Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson and Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir respectively) but their story is quite run-of-the-mill, it hits the right dramatic notes but it often leaves the audience waiting for the highly amusing war-ing neighbours to strike at each other again.

The cast consists of relative newcomers, most having only a few other acting credits as miscellaneous background and side characters in Icelandic TV and film. The ensemble works and plays well off of each other in sequences of hatred, although the standout performances stem from the characters given more emotional sequences and stories. Jónsdóttir gives a fantastic performance as a heartbroken and overborne mother struggling with the clingy and tumultuous ex-partner, Alti. We fear for her safety and security. Edda Björgvinsdóttir gives a standout performance as the spiteful and witch-like Tree owner Agnes, a jaded, emotional and explosive woman scorned by personal tragedy, the pessimistic instigator of the neighbouring war.

The patios, trees, gardens, earthworms and blood are lovingly and artistically shot by up-and-comer Monika Lenczewska, who leaves a fantastic impression as a cinematographer worth keeping an eye out for. The soundtrack, composed by Daníel Bjarnason, is relatively indistinguishable and unmemorable yet during the viewing, favourable to its sequences.

Under The Tree plays similar to a Greek Tragedy, the film becomes more engaging as it goes along and ends at its highest in a shocking, bloody and explosive finale that leaves a sickening feeling, encored by a final shot that brings a brief smirk. While the film sets many things up in the first quarter and pays the majority of them off in the finale; a decent amount of these setups are never given the proper footing, and are replaced or forgotten about by the end of the film.

The film isn’t as smart as it thinks it is; playing on the idea of a simple solution being under the characters noses but out of their peripherals, luckily, this isn’t a pitfall, as the film makes up for this by being solidly enjoyable and viscerally engaging.

Under The Tree plays like a parable of sorts, the importance of stopping something at the source rather than at the end result. Love thy neighbour as thyself, but if vengeance is a livelihood, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

4 out of 5 stars

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