By Thomas Puhr.
One may argue that the “feuding neighbors” subgenre is overdone, having been explored in films like John G. Avildsen’s Neighbors (1981), Danny DeVito’s Duplex (2003), and Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors (2014) and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016). This trend is not limited to movie theaters, either; nearly every television sitcom has used it as a basis for one of its episodes. There’s even a true-crime documentary series on the subject, Fear Thy Neighbor, which recounts fatal encounters between different “neighbors from Hell.” Nevertheless, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s offbeat Under the Tree (2017) from Iceland breathes some new life into this well-worn plot, thanks to excellent acting and wonderfully-gallows humor.
In this case, the neighbors in question are two vastly-different married couples: Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir, a standout) and Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), who are still coping with the mysterious death of one of their children, and Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) and Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann), who are struggling to have their first child. The object of the couples’ escalating confrontations is the former’s tree, which casts an unpleasant shadow on Eybjorg’s favorite backyard tanning spot. Caught in the middle of this absurd contest of wills is Inga and Baldvin’s hapless son, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), who grudgingly moves back in with his parents during a fierce child custody battle with his wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir).
Sigurðsson explores some intriguing parallels between the battles over the tree and the innocent child, Asa (Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving). Agnes puts it best in an email she writes to her husband: “We’re always arguing, in a constant tug of war. We’ve begun to hurt each other. Why are we acting this way? Instead of focusing on the most precious thing we have?” These observations are equally applicable to the feuding couples; the lack of empathy on both sides of the literal fence ultimately has dire consequences. The archetypal conflict of neighbors arguing over their backyards, then, becomes a platform for the writer-director’s interest in a simple, but essential, question: Why do people insist on hurting each other?
Regardless of such serious subject matter, the film is not lacking in satirical, borderline absurdist humor. The opening scene, in which Agnes catches Atli masturbating to a sex tape he made with an ex-girlfriend, plays like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode from Hell. In a sly jab at consumerism, Atli and Asa go “camping” in a small field overlooking an IKEA. Later, Baldvin admonishes his son for not settling his fight with Agnes “like grown-ups,” all while setting up a tent in his backyard to prevent Konrad from cutting down his tree in the middle of the night.
It’s easy to see why David Gordon Green was inspired to remake Sigurðsson’s Either Way (2011) as 2013’s wonderful Prince Avalanche, since he also enjoys mixing disparate genres within a single film. Here, Sigurðsson gleefully hopscotches from kitchen sink drama, to slapstick comedy, to bloody thriller. Although these tonal shifts sometimes lack consistency, they certainly make for an unpredictable viewing experience. Unlike Green, however, the style here is decidedly restrained; cinematographer Monika Lenczewska’s drab, muted color tones have more in common with the deadpan aesthetic of Roy Andersson’s You, the Living (2007) or A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).
While the film has many unexpected plot developments (especially in its final, increasingly-morbid act), Sigurðsson unfortunately plays it safe during key moments. A confrontation between Atli and Rakel (Dóra Jóhannsdóttir), the ex-girlfriend from the sex tape, seems cut short; her character is introduced and generates our interest (she is intelligent, practical, and even sympathetic toward her former lover: a portrayal that thoughtfully rebuffs her objectified representation in the video), but she is quickly discarded from the story. Most disappointingly, a final visual twist that is clearly intended to shock instead feels predictable and almost lazy in its execution.
Towering over such shortcomings, however, is Edda Björgvinsdóttir’s performance as Inga. Although she initially generates sympathy because of her family’s tragic past, her character takes a delightfully-acidic turn after the tree argument erupts. She delivers some of the screenplay’s funniest, most biting dialogue, the stings of which none of the characters are spared. “You were always such a wimp. Constantly whining,” she scolds her despairing son, as if he were a child. When her neighbors’ dog goes missing, she offers the following consolation: “If it’s found somewhere dead by a roadside, you’re most welcome to bury it under my tree” (the fate of Eybjorg and Konrad’s dog is repulsive but undeniably funny, eliciting guilty laughter on my part). Furthermore, one of Sigurðsson’s most memorable images is of Inga calmly smoking a cigarette after the story’s brutal finale. If only more of the film had been this daring.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.