Movie Review: Under the Tree (2017)

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Staging his dramatic thriller like a “a war film where home is the battlefield,”* over the eerie opening credits of director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's Under the Tree, men line up at a gun range to fire a metaphorical shot across the bow, which translates to a shot across the fence as soon as the action begins.

With both trees and sunlight at a premium in Iceland, at the start of the summer holiday, a feud between two next door neighbors over a beautiful old tree that blocks the sunlight from one's yard escalates from an obvious climate change allegory into a morality tale of epic proportions.

Setting a majority of its action in the homes and yards of its suburban characters, Sigurðsson and his co-writer Huldar Breiðfjörð make some terrific points about our increasingly individualized society. Tree reminds viewers of the fact that although we might exchange pleasantries with one another and/or hear rumors, we have very little clue what's really going on in the lives of the people with whom we share a property line at any given time.

Drastically shifting in tone from a darkly funny opening fight between a married couple to an increasingly dramatic standoff between two households, as it moves into thriller territory, we begin to realize that, more than anyone, Tree's women have been the ones to set up the dominoes and – by way of their interaction with men and each other – start to make them fall.

Yet while this decision is justified when limited to the animosity between the two neighbor women whose actions and outrage propel the men to predictably violent means, when the same treatment of female cause and negative male effect spreads to other well-intentioned women in the movie, it feels like a biblical – turned borderline misogynistic – twist.

Packing a whole lot into its eighty-nine minute running time (including a fascinating through line about how three very different family members cope very differently with grief), although it works well as an overall morality tale, the film's characters possess enough complexity that the picture could've easily been twice as long.

Led by comedians and comedy actors, Under the Tree is grounded by its ensemble cast. Featuring a superlative goosebump inducing score by Daníel Bjarnason that helped modulate the film's early jumps back and forth in character and tone as well as the gradually darkening color palette from talented cinematographer Monika Lenczewska, it's a technically impressive work that wears its inspirations from Lynch and Haneke to Cianfrance and Ramsay proudly throughout.

Above average in spite of its narrative flaws, the opposite of a summer popcorn picture, Under the Tree is made for those who prefer films with shade.

*As quoted in the Magnolia Pictures press notes.

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