There is just no indication that the team making the film knows how to bring their ideas to life, nor do their ideas seem all that original or worthwhile in the first place.
It is easy to decipher the intentions of Under the Tree, and its screen cultural reference points are readily apparent as well. It is a black comedy satirizing the vagaries and ennui of contemporary suburban life. It wishes to be a heady mix of The Ice Storm and Sightseers, with a bite of the absurdist Scandinavian sarcasm made famous by Roy Andersson’s recent trilogy mixed in as well. But here’s the rub: Under the Tree is simply not a good film. It points to where it is going and kind of, sometimes, gets to that destination, but there is no pathos here, so nothing really comes off.
The story centers on one family. Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), the adult son, is kicked out of his apartment by his wife for, it seems, watching the sex tape of a time when he cheated on her. With nowhere else to go, he returns to his parent’s home, which is one among many in a set of row houses in a Reykjavik suburb. The mother, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), is still deep in mourning for her other son, who committed suicide at least a year before the events in the film take place. Atli’s father, Baldvin, (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), is an unwitting referee between Inga, who snaps into acts of extreme violence without warning, and their neighbors, with whom they are engaged in a pointless dispute over the amount of shade cast by a tree in Inga and Baldvin’s backyard.
From this set-up, Under the Tree traces two narrative lines that occasionally intertwine. One is Atli’s clumsy and misguided attempts to reconcile with his wife, which involve stalking her around town, embarrassing her at work, and kidnapping their daughter from her intense kindergarten to have a picnic at Ikea. All the punchlines for jokes are right there, but none of the laughs are particularly good ones nor does the film earn such laughs. The other narrative line is the rapidly escalating duel between Inga and her neighbors over the tree, which involves puerile vandalism, several cases of breaking and entering, stealing pets, and, eventually, interpersonal physical violence. As with the Atli arc, the jokes are obvious even in the idea pitch, but that does not make them amusing. It seems that the film is content with set-up, as it puts no effort into follow-through.
The Ice Storm presented a genuine critique of the way modern people, at least in affluent areas, have set up simulations of community life that in truth are actually anti-community. The suburb, in other words, is not a neighborhood; it is an anti-neighborhood. Sightseers is a hilariously absurd enactment of the lack of purpose many people feel today, partially because they are denied a sense of community having grown up in a soulless suburb. Under the Tree, in contrast, is neither. The outlines of both humor and critique are there, but they are never filled in; the execution is lacking. The characters are too stale, the premise too contrived, the pay-offs – both for the jokes and the setting – too quick and too easy, and the climax far too obvious. There is just no indication that the team making the film knows how to bring their ideas to life, nor do their ideas seem all that original or worthwhile in the first place.