Under The Tree (Undir trénu) is an especially grueling Icelandic import directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson (Either Way, Paris of the North), portraying a handful of characters that show viewers the very reason why everyone locks their doors, keeps their kids and pets safely inside, and stays away from their neighbors. Far, far away.
The story begins when Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Sense8) catches her husband, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, The Grandad), watching a video of himself having sex with former lover, Rakel (Dóra Jóhannsdóttir, The Cliff). Understandably hurt and upset, Agnes kicks him out of the house, changes the locks and predictably uses their young daughter, Asa (Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving), as a weapon by keeping them apart.
Atli returns to his parents’ home, where a different dispute is brewing over a large tree in their yard that’s casting a large shadow on their neighbor’s deck. This happens to be just the spot were newly married wife, Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir, The Oath) wants to sunbathe. When her husband, Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann, Life in a Fish Bowl), asks to have the tree situation taken care of, Atli’s father, Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is willing to have it trimmed. However, his wife and Atli’s mother, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Stella for Office), who is still suffering the loss of her son who committed suicide, is unwilling to budge. There’s clearly a negative history with these neighbors that’s never really explained, an absence that only adds to the overall cloudy mood.
This fight over the tree continues to brutally escalate throughout the movie into a volatile and inhumane situation that makes for a very dramatic and intense film, with a story that will stay with the viewer as a clear commentary on the sociopolitical state of the world. However, those who have a soft spot for animals will find themselves hating most of the characters, and anyone who has been through divorce or is a child of divorce will likely only side with the younger Asa.
Nowhere is a clear protagonist identified, and rooting for any of these characters would simply go against human nature as they’re among the most unlikable personas to ever be assembled in one cinematic experience. The film is also very gray, both in mood and tone, a perfect encapsulation of both the mood and dreary Nordic landscape it hails from. The cinematography is beautiful, though I can’t help feeling it could have been shot on a cheap digital camera you could easily pick up at the local Best Buy. This gives the film a home video feel, albeit one where all the family members went nuts. Then again, maybe that’s just normal for some families…
Many scenes require no dialogue to move the story forward or explain characters’ inner thoughts and emotions, most of which feels entirely reprehensible. Another striking thing is the visual storytelling demonstrated by just the actors’ body language, which was both an interesting choice that gives the film an edge for those who might have trouble with its native Icelandic language and culture. Cruelty, sadly, remains pretty universal.
Without the need for expensive special effects or big-budget demons, Under the Tree presents a shocking and unique storyline, featuring some of the most horrible humans with insanely villainous tendencies I’ve seen onscreen in a long time. More a character study than pure exploitation, it showcases how borderline crazy people can – and often do – jump to conclusions and retaliate without much thought. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and if you’re an animal lover you may want to steer clear. Happy endings don’t exist here.