I first saw Under the Tree at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival, and at the time I didn’t much care for it. I suspect that this is resultant of two things. First, the film festival is a marathon, not a sprint, and I sprinted HARD. By the time I sat down for Under the Tree, I was pretty movied out. Secondly, I think I was off-put by my own expectations. I was told by a programmer to expect a series of zany escalations of plot, not an unholy post-mumblecore marriage of Todd Solondz and Ruben Östlund. What I’m saying is that this movie is dark. DARK dark. Jet black. But as wild as the plot gets, the whole thing feels believable. The descent into vengeance and madness that befalls the entirety of the cast is as natural a path as can be imagined, which makes this film not just entertaining, but cautionary. At a time where catharsis increasingly takes precedent over progress, Under the Tree has become essential. I’m glad that this film made its way on to my radar a second time, because this time around I LOVED it.
At its heart, Under the Tree is a parable about communication. Unsatisfied with the physical aspects of his marriage, Atli leaves the bedroom one night to masturbate to a video he made with a past lover. When his wife Agnes walks in, he is booted from their home with little opportunity for explanation. He moves in with his parents who, in the wake of a family tragedy, are dealing with some tensions of their own. These tensions manifest in the form of a property dispute. There’s an old tree in their yard which casts unwanted shade on their neighbors’ porch, and a series of passive aggressive exchanges about it soon evolve into an all-out war in which cruelty becomes the weapon of choice.
Oddly enough, there isn’t really a character who could be described as our protagonist. Equal screen time is given to all of the players: Atli, Agnes, his parents, their neighbors – even the pets get in on the, um, fun. This is an ensemble effort for sure, one which covers a diverse span of personalities, each with a varying degree of complicity in the exponentially classless battles that ensue. It’s not the easiest thing to watch, but it’s not trying to be. In fact, this movie is working overtime to make the viewer uncomfortable. Much like the aforementioned Ruben Östlund, director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurôsson (who co-wrote with Huldar Breiôfjörô) wants the audience to look inward and see how easily madness can set in when the right circumstances manifest and OH MY GOD THIS MOVIE IS DIRECTED BY THE JOKER.
There’s one development that I completely forgot about between viewings that deeply upset me, and you’re either going to be all in or all out as it occurs. That’s fine. This is abrasive stuff, but if you give it a chance and really take pains to let it all in, you’ll find that Under the Tree is downright hilarious. This is the type of movie that likely requires multiple viewings to appreciate fully. Cool by me. I can’t wait to watch other people watch it.
Under the Tree opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.