Depraved comedy and intimate domestic drama fight for supremacy in Iceland’s Under the Tree — a dark, discomfiting farce that plays like David Lynch for the umlaut set.
Writer-director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s movie begins with a literal bang before the opening credits even wrap. Or multiple bangs, really: A thirtyish wife and mother, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) walks in on her feckless husband Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) masturbating to laptop footage of himself having grunting, unmistakably extracurricular sex with another woman; moments later, shots ring out from a line of unidentified men at gun range.
Agnes wastes no time telling Atli to get out, and without a better place to land, he reluctantly crashes at his parents’ house, seemingly more aggrieved than sorry. But his mild-mannered father Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and seething, sharp-tongued mother Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) have their own distractions: a dispute with their longtime next-door neighbor Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and his much-younger wife Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) over a tree straddling both their properties that has begun to curdle into something a pair of hedge clippers and a plate of cookies clearly won’t fix.
While Atli, a tattooed man-child with a short fuse and a truly impressive lack of self-awareness, tries and fails to reconcile with the emotionally bruised Agnes, the neighborly feud escalates. It doesn’t help that Baldvin and Inga’s marriage has devolved into a sort of wary, fragile détente after the death, most likely by suicide, of their eldest child. And that Konrad and Eybjorg, still newlyweds, are struggling to conceive.
As the strained disagreement over the tree blooms into open hostility, a sort of tactical War of the Roses begins, with escalating misdeeds on both sides. Some are petty; others wildly, outrageously criminal. (If you donate to PETA regularly, look away.)
All this alternates with a parallel thread of much quieter character studies — scenes that seek to explore, with genuine sensitivity, the damage done by unacknowledged grief and unfulfilled dreams. As a storyteller, Sigurdsson has a sort of sly naturalistic talent and Nordic style to spare. And his actors, who look gratifyingly like real (albeit still unusually attractive) people, are excellent to a fault.
But as the gap between the script’s two directives widens and farce tips into tragedy, the final act feels less like a twisted triumph than a cheat: By trading in all its intrigue and emotional subtleties for the gotcha moment it’s clearly been waiting for, Tree wins the battle but loses the war. B