‘Un­der the Tree’ casts a dark shadow over neigh­borly re­la­tions

Satir­i­cal thriller leaves im­pres­sion

Pawtucket Times - - FILM - By ANN HORNADAY

“Un­der the Tree” vir­tu­ally swept this year’s Edda Awards – Ice­land’s equiv­a­lent of the Os­cars – and it’s easy to see why. This crafty so­ci­o­log­i­cal thriller, set amid the pris­tine town­houses and lawns of a quiet Reyk­javik sub­urb, builds slowly but surely into a film that feels ut­terly of a piece with a much wider world.

Steinthor Hroar Steinthors­son plays Atli, who as the film opens is caught in what might be called fla­grante de­porno by his wife, Agnes (Lara Jo­hanna Jons­dot­tir). She doesn’t re­act well, and Atli is sum­mar­ily kicked out of the fam­ily home, leav­ing his 4-year-old daugh­ter be­hind. When he fetches up at the doorstep of his par­ents (Edda Bjorgvins­dot­tir and Sig­ur­dur Sig­ur­jon­s­son), he finds them caught up in their own do­mes­tic drama, par­ry­ing re­quests from their neigh­bors (Thorsteinn Bach­mann and Selma Bjorns­dot­tir) to trim the tree that is cast­ing shade into their yard.

It’s a beau­ti­ful tree, and it would be easy, as Atli’s mother ob­serves, for the neigh­bors sim­ply to move their lawn chairs into the sun. But noth­ing is that sim­ple in “Un­der the Tree,” in which ten­sions, buried trauma and un­re­solved grief send ev­ery char­ac­ter into a down­ward spi­ral of an­ti­so­cial act­ing-out.

Di­rec­tor Haf­steinn Gun­nar Sig­urds­son, who wrote the film with Hul­dar Brei­d­fjord, does a splen­did job of es­tab­lish­ing a ris­ing sense of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance as snippy com­ments give way to petty cru­el­ties that even­tu­ally es­ca­late to an ab­so­lute break­down of so­cial or­der – all set against a Dan­ish-mod­ern back­drop of sub­dued dis­cre­tion and qui­etly im­pec­ca­ble taste. “Has ev­ery­one lost their mind?” one char­ac­ter cries at one point.

Well, yes. As a so­cial satire, “Un­der the Tree” re­calls last year’s Swedish Os­car nom­i­nee “The Square,” as well as Ro­man Polan­ski’s claus­tro­pho­bic 2011 adap­ta­tion of the play “Car­nage.” Here, in su­perbly cal­i­brated en­coun­ters, Sig­urds­son ratch­ets up the fore­bod­ing with de­cep­tively im­pas­sive-look­ing tableaus and some mood­ily sug­ges­tive mu­sic.

It’s rel­e­vant that the mem­bers of one house­hold are dog peo­ple, the other ones cat lovers; view­ers schooled in the folk­ways of con­tem­po­rary hor­ror might see “Un­der the Tree’s” grue­some de­noue­ment com­ing from an Ice­landic mile away. Still, Sig­urds­son clearly has his fin­ger on the pulse, not only of smooth- ly en­gross­ing film­mak­ing, but also his own anx­ious times.

“Un­der the Tree” is a stylish, bluntly ef­fec­tive para­ble for an in­creas­ingly un­civil and ir­ra­tional age.

Three stars. Un­rated. Con­tains brief pro­fan­ity, nu­dity and sex­u­al­ity, as well as adult themes. In Ice­landic with sub­ti­tles. 90 min­utes.

Mag­no­lia Pic­tures

Thorsteinn Bach­mann plays a man squab­bling with his neigh­bors over a shade tree in the Ice­landic so­cial satire “Un­der the Tree.”

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