What a journey. There aren’t answers to everything in Under the Tree, but one thing is very clear: these people have serious trust issues. The Icelandic film is supposed to be a very dark comedy, and within the first few minutes of the film a husband is kicked out on accusation of cheating. Turns out that was a really good idea. Not everything is funny, though, as it leans more on the side of disconcerting. Things go from normal neighborly disagreements to a horrifying end.
The man, Atli, is a particular brand of awful that becomes more and more realized as he moves in with his elderly parents. Atli’s parents are feuding with their next-door neighbors about the shade from a tree in their yard that blocks the neighbor’s tanning chair. I’d never thought about people tanning outdoors in Iceland before, but apparently the summer temperatures are similar to that of Seattle; not too warm, but not really cold. One wouldn’t think that this would be a particularly big deal, but the elderly parents take the neighbor’s request personally and refuse to cut the tree back, not even a little bit. No character here is a fan of compromise. Everyone is very aggressive.
At first Atli’s mother seems like an appropriately concerned parent. But her resistance to the tree issue is clearly over-the-top, and I got the feeling that either she was experiencing some kind of dementia or that she’s a Marvel villain. Yet they both behave as victims even though they are abusive: from snide remarks to body shaming, harassment, and violence. One character is stalked, another is arguably kidnapped to IKEA. The family is self-destructive at best and a nightmare at worst.
Films like this one are in some ways exciting because they can be unpredictable. Things seem to have a clear trajectory, and the pacing of a film like this must balance tension with time. Under the Tree is fairly lean, but not everything was clear in its necessity: Atli and his father have a relationship that goes unexplored when it would provide valuable insight to some familial situations. Blame is placed on the suicide of Atli’s brother for the mother’s misbehavior, but based on Atil himself, the mother has always been a quiet disturbance that unleashes hell at the smallest slight.
It’s bizarre in some ways because at first, it’s funny that some reactions are so over-the-top, but by the finally some of it is hilarious (in a bad way). It’s like that time Björk went ballistic on a reporter in Bangkok (and again more than a decade later in Auckland). At first you sense the stress, but the smallest trigger snaps both the characters and surprises the viewer. How far could a person go? What about these people makes them so susceptible to assault? In the end, the most cunning manipulator wins.
If anything, I learned that it’s always a good idea to request photographic identification at the animal hospital, never trespass with shadows, install security cameras, and probably don’t mess with Icelandic people.