There are actually two storylines running concurrently in this very dark dramedy from Iceland. In one, everyman Atli is caught by his wife watching a sex tape in which she is not a participant, is kicked out of the house, and has to go live with his parents. In the other, Atli’s parents Baldvin and Inga are in an ever escalating fight with their neighbors Konrad and Eybjorg over a tree in the backyard. And while Atli tries to make amends with his wife and get to see his cute little daughter, he’s living with a mother who doesn’t have a firm grasp on reality and a father who is taking his cues from her in the battle over the tree’s future. The theme that runs through both stories is how easily people think the worst and act on their assumptions. And how nothing good ever comes from it.
The tree in question is in the back yard of the two couples’ condos, and its shade is getting in the way of the neighbor’s new young wife Eybjorg’s suntanning ritual. The neighbors want it cut down, but Baldvin and Inga want it left alone — maybe just a trim. But when Baldvin’s tires get slashed, Inga takes it as a declaration of war. The cat goes missing and then the neighbor’s dog. And there are gnome statues that mysteriously move from house to house. Security cameras are installed. And Atli camps out in the back yard to defend the tree. And it’s tit for tat all the way to an over-the-top bloody ending.
I expected the two story lines to come together at some point, but the neighbor squabble is what the film is about and Atli’s domestic problems seem like a distraction. The acting is all good and it’s well shot, but I saw the ending coming a mile away and didn’t really buy the characters’ motivations and actions. Under the Tree has art house crowd written all over it with the promise of an American version down the road that makes more sense. I’d say wait for that one.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: Indeed, this is one best left to the arty crowd. I was good with the first hour or so, but then the film drifts into bizarro territory. And the last five minutes is brutal to watch, except for the final shot which, as Arty Chick notes, is totally predictable. I don’t really need to see an American version, unless there’s some way to make the ending a bit more satisfying and less cray-cray. -hb]