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Perpetual twilight is the right look for Under the Tree. The family drama from Icelandic filmmaker Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson is set during the holiday months, when the sun always looks like it is about to set, and his characters are similarly stuck in a transitional period. There are two concurrent storylines: a disintegrating marriage and an escalating war between neighbors. The trouble is that Sigurðsson’s sense of plot and character is too obvious, when he should strive for something more inevitable. Under the Tree has comic moments and Sigurðsson clearly wants his film to serve as a metaphor for modern alienation, except it lands with all the power of a sitcom’s “special episode.”
When we first meet Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), he cannot sleep because his neighbors are fucking too loudly. He decides to jerk off in the family room, and his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) catches him in the act. Her confusion turns to outrage once she realizes that not only is Atli watching porn of himself, his partner in the video is his ex-girlfriend. She kicks him out, so Atli stays with his parents Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Inga (Guðbjörg Edda Björgvinsdóttir) who have problems of their own: Their neighbor Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) whines about a large tree obscuring the sun in the backyard. Hours of daylight are infrequent in Iceland, so their war of words gets nastier—even violent—once the neighbors resort to childish pranks and stealing.
Under the Tree can be intriguing when we are still trying to figure out who these characters are. Inga is needlessly nasty, calling Eybjorg names like “cow,” while Atli debases himself so he can reconcile with Agnes. There are convenient reasons for all this behavior, and Sigurðsson’s script reveals them all within the film’s slim running time. Canny audiences will anticipate that these characters are still reeling from past trauma, and their bad behavior is just their version of lashing out. This is not a new line of storytelling; in fact, nearly every family drama since 1980’s Ordinary People has riffed on this idea. As the film wraps, presenting its themes in a neat bow, there is a gnawing feeling that there must be more than the obvious twists we see. There is not, so the story loses its power to shock and serve as allegory.
Like many other recent European dramas, Sigurðsson strives to find comedy in discomfort. There is a scene where Atli goes to his daughter’s kindergarten, and the nervous child care worker in a man bun quietly emasculates him. There are several scenes where Inga makes of point of being passive-aggressive whenever her neighbors are in earshot. In the best examples of these European dramas, such as the recent comedy Force Majeure, that discomfort unearths nasty truths about tough targets like toxic masculinity or modern gender roles. Ironically, this film works best when it ditches the comic discomfort and lets its characters actually talk. There are a few heart-to-hearts where Atli and the others let down their defenses, suggesting Under the Tree would be improved if it actually focused on reconciliation.
Every comedy of manners, whether it is set in modern times or hundreds of years ago, focuses on how easy it is for civilized characters to become savage. Under the Tree takes that notion and makes it literal: in his desperation, Baldvin gets violent with Eybjorg’s husband Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann). While these two middle-aged men have all the trappings of affluence, there is nothing funny about their clumsy, protracted fight. Nor is there any surprise when the fight arrives: Sigurðsson seemingly does not believe in subtext, keeping his metaphors at the surface level. That kind of subtlety is perfect for a short film, or perhaps a comedy sketch, but not a feature-length film that purports to be about “the way things are.” At every possibly turn, Under the Tree goes after, er, low-hanging fruit, and treats its facile revelations as if they are profound.
Under the Tree opens Friday at Landmark West End Cinema.