Release Date: July 6, 2018
Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
MPAA Rating: NR
Run Time: 89 minutes
I was never one to make these types of comparisons, but the Icelandic drama Under the Tree is essentially the Seth Rogen and Zac Effron big-box comedy Neighbors, if you were to surgically extract all the joy and humor and substitute heaping helpings of nihilistic gloom in its place.
The question becomes why anyone would have the inclination to perceive the squabbling of nearby residents as anything but an opportunity for light, absurd comedy, but Sigurosson oddly presents his neighbour drama as an eternal struggle between common decency and petulant insanity. The odd escalation game he plays with the elderly residents of Under the Tree, which can inexplicably jump from mistrust and name-calling to crimes against humanity, is the type of super-serious exercise in raw human misery that can be mistaken as satirical if it wasn’t so solitary and vacant.
From the desaturated malaise of his suburban vision to the ugliness of the people he populates with, there is no joy to taken from Under the Tree, and its contrived, oppressive melancholy refuse to give reason to the misery it invokes.
The tree of the title is the spark that lights the wick of this domestic antagonism, a large oak caught between the yards of the traditionalists Inga and Baldvin and the trendier Konrad and Eybjorg. Possibly on account of Sigurosson’s hollow and clinical shooting style for the most quotidian of things, tensions already seem unnecessary high between the two stern couples. Konrad requests for the tree to be cut, and this innocent request cracks the lid on a can of petty, pent-up personal grievances that alienate the neighbors into psychological warfare.
Accusations of missing property, vandalism and spiteful personal attacks are thrown in all directions, all while Sigurosson films with the unsettling (and frankly unnecessary) sterility of a serial killer film. The apparently mounting circumstances that inevitably lead to bloodshed really aren’t worth mentioning, but Under the Tree makes no attempt to ease us into the drastic, sadistic shift its neighbor squabble takes, as suddenly pets are murdered and tauntingly displayed and needless blood is spilled on both sides.
Unlike a pot of water being brought to boil, the film just unexpectedly throws the pot at your face and you’re just left disoriented and annoyed at the sudden action it takes. If that plot was not unpleasant enough, the storyline about the slow disintegration of the marriage between (Baldvin and Inga’s son) Atil and his wife, Agnes, after he is caught with homemade pornography of his last girlfriend, takes up much more of Under the Tree’s lean runtime.
What can be best described as a “men’s rights” sob story, Atil is pressured into a divorce and freezed out by Agnes, who refuses to talk it out and demands full custody. This bitter domestic battle of ugly circumstances casts Atil into the other ugly domestic battle of the film as he moves back in with his parents and becomes a third party to their war. Their strained atmosphere sparks his resentment as he spends his days stalking his soon-to-be ex-wife, contending it is her fault for not talking to him and inadvertently building the grounds for divorce against him, despite his parents contending what a “good guy” he is deep down.
The oppressive mood of the film has no respite in either story, and it’s just one needlessly mean-spirited scene after the other, with Atil digging himself further into the hole he has made while his parents and their neighbors stoke their grudge until the misery consumes them all. In reality the sadistic crescendo of Under the Tree is greatly assisted by Sigurosson’s bleak visuals, which turn the petty quarrel of the parties involved into callous acts against decency. The look of the film is doing the majority of the heavy lifting because, otherwise, the little bits of stewing the characters go through in their isolation would be downright insufferable.
The film is unapologetically mundane in its choice of common subject matter and presents it in the most barren and anemic way that it can, but all that does is create this false sense of malice, which is never delivered on. Sigurosson has the want to disturb with his presentation, but that impulse clashes with the steadfastly ordinary in his narrative and bores more than it does provoke.
When you boil it down to its components, Under the Tree is just two neighbors being dicks to one another, presented with a clinical seriousness that can only reflect its misery on you as you watch. You could give it points for the controlled way it can create a mood through its visuals, but other than that, I just can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to such doleful, purposeless sprung out of such an unassuming premise.
Absolute bleakness can carry a film into the level of great art, but there has to be a direction and appropriate cause for it. Under the Tree just kinda likes to wallow in its unearned misery, and that just bores me. I’d much rather watch Neighbors.