Rating: 3 stars
“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 smoothly engrossing filmmaking, but also his own anxious times. “Under the Tree” is a stylish, bluntly effective parable for an increasingly uncivil and irrational age.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains brief profanity, nudity and sexuality, as well as adult themes. In Icelandic with subtitles. 90 minutes.