Under the Tree: Icelanders behaving badly makes for dark, deranged social satire

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A-

Ah, those Nordic folk. Pleasantly and civilly dealing with life’s hiccups, bottling up the nastiness other cultures freely express.

The dark Icelandic social satire Under the Tree uncorks that bottle, with a dispute-between-neighbours that escalates plausibly enough for a while. Eventually, however, its deranged events achieve escape velocity and enter the ozone layer.

The title tree in question is a lonely, luxuriously spreading beauty, especially in a country more noted for its volcanic terrain than its foliage. 

Björgvinsdóttir descends into madness in Under the Tree. Bare-assed gnomes just the beginning.

Björgvinsdóttir descends into madness in Under the Tree. Bare-assed gnomes just the beginning.

Unfortunately, its shade interferes with the sun-tanning regimen of next-door-neighbour Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir), the trophy-wife of Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann), who dutifully requests on his wife’s behalf that elderly couple Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) trim its branches, if not cut it down entirely.

A simple enough exchange, it seems. But there are tragic back stories that curdle people’s reactions. Baldvin and Inga are still grieving over the disappearance and probable suicide of their eldest son Uggi. 

Their other son, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is back at home, having been kicked out by his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) for watching a home-made sex video featuring Atli and an ex-girlfriend (Dóra Jóhannsdóttir). He is becoming rage-filled at losing access to his young daughter Asa (Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving).

Once director/co-writer (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson) has all these emotional pieces in play, it’s clear somebody’s going to blow up somewhere. Maybe it’ll be more than one character, and maybe all at once.

There’s a cat. There’s a dog. There’s a chainsaw. There’s an act of cruelty that verges on diabolical (pet lovers be warned!). There’s an act of retaliation that should have seen an immediate arrest that effectively ended the movie, but the Reykjavik police apparently take summer holidays just like everyone else in Iceland (with all the transgressions, the only time they enter the picture is when someone breaks someone else’s cellphone in anger).

Director Sigurðsson sprinkles the tale with acidic sidenotes. Example: As Atli and Agnes’s marriage is imploding, their entire building is dealing with yet another neighbour issue – a defiant young couple whose loud love-making is keeping every other tenant awake. Meanwhile, Baldvin's only solace is a men's choir whose dour repertoire alone would be enough to make one suicidal.

But as the story begins to focus, you see the course of events harden characters – particularly Inga (chillingly acted by Edda Björgvinsdóttir, whose exchanges with Eybjorg turn increasingly contemptuous and who enters the area of outright deranged villainy. (Interestingly, the wives are the sticks that stir the drink in this mordant war of neighbours, with the reluctant husbands dutifully forced to carry out the movie’s tragic last act, giving the whole thing the tone of a modern Icelandic Macbeth).

Though Under the Tree falls firmly into satire, it is not a comedy with a lot of laughs. It is more an absurdist tragedy, with cringe-worthy moments. Sigurðsson escalates the story well, though the whistle probably would have been blown earlier on the aberrant behavior – in the non-Icelandic world anyway.

Under the Tree. Directed and co-written by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. Starring Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson. Opens Friday, July 20 at Canada Square.