The most recent World Happiness Index lists Iceland as the fourth happiest country in the world. Suffice to say, Under the Tree doesn’t exactly delve into that optimism, and instead focusses heavily on feuds, misunderstandings and outright hatred. It’s somewhat similar in tone and style to Grímur Hákonarson’s excellent Hrutar (Rams) – poking fun at the darkness within. While it doesn’t exactly use its setting as wisely, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s dark comedy showcases human nature at its best – and worst – and manages to give its audience plenty of food for thought.
The film opens with Atli and Rakel going to sleep together – they barely interact, but perhaps they’re simply tired after a long day. We soon find out that it’s not exactly the case, as Atli gets caught red handed by Rakel the following morning watching porn on his laptop. To make things worse, it’s self-made porn, Atli having sex with another woman. He immediately tells Rakel that it happened long before they started dating, but it’s a shoddy excuse and he knows it.
Atli soon finds himself locked out of his apartment, and a restraining order prohibits him from interacting with his daughter. As he waits for a slightly more pacified Rakel, he seeks refuge at his parents’ place – a household where other demons loom. His mother, Inga, still has trouble getting over his older brother’s suicide, and expects him to come home any given day. Then, there’s a feud with the next-door neighbours, who repeatedly complain that a tree in Atli’s parents’ garden casts too much shadow in their own yard. A number of coincidences and misunderstandings intensify the feud, until it reaches a point where none of the parties are able to back down.
One remarkable thing about Under the Tree is its set of characters, and the dynamics between them. Even though we have a number of characters central to the plot, none of them can be categorised as either the hero or the antagonist. Each and every one of them makes mistakes during the approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes of runtime, and while some of their actions are really unspeakable, none are ultimately derived from malice. Atli is merely trying to make sense of his life, looking for short-term bouts of happiness instead of crafting a long-term direction, and only discovers that his daughter is the most precious thing once he’s no longer legally allowed to see him. Baldvin, his father, tries his best to console his wife and get over the death of his eldest son. The tree in their garden, which they try to protect at all costs, is a symbol of the past, when their eldest son was alive, and his younger brother still had a happy family life.
Under the Tree carefully takes the viewers through its character study, consistently establishing a sort of balanced situation, only to then break it with one shocking decision after another. Most importantly, it delivers plenty of humour throughout the story. Sometimes it’s the light, easy to laugh at kind of humour, but other times, it’s the type of humour where you morally know you shouldn’t laugh, but cannot help it anyways. The ending somewhat mirrors the ironic randomness of the final scene in Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’, and with a similar brand of comic relief on display in the film, the striking similarity comes to no great surprise.
Ultimately, Under the Tree teaches us an important lesson about how prone people are to spur of the moment, flawed judgement, and how such decisions can lead to actions which they ultimately can no longer control and take back. An extreme act is followed by an even more extreme act in the other direction, and so on, and so forth. Even though it might not have been Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s intention, I thought he accurately captured society’s view on politics. When one action or judgement leans towards the left, the corresponding response will be at least equally as much to the right – and it’s a game which ultimately leads to two different positions, which could not be further apart.