Humans have few redeeming qualities in Under The Tree

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      Starring Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson. In Icelandic, with English subtitles. Rated 14A

      There aren’t many trees left in Iceland. So it’s alarming on several levels when suburban neighbours come to blows over a small chunk of arbour that provides unwanted shade on one party’s patio.

      Immaculately designed geometric houses and well-organized shelving units can’t hide the chaotic rot happening with the people in those homes. Middle-agers Konrad and Eybjorg (Þorsteinn Bachmann and Selma Björnsdóttir) are trying for a baby; their slightly older nabes seem jealous of the other couple’s relative youthfulness and peeved by their insistence on cross-border tree-trimming. Meekly retired Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson was the fearsomely bearded lead in Rams) is content to sing with an all-male Viking-lite choir, while chain-smoking Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) makes things worse with every insult she hurls across the hedge.

      The older couple are already burdened by the disappearance of their older son, and Inga seems less than delighted when his younger sibling, Atli (SteinÞór Hróar SteinÞórsson), turns up on their Danish-modern couch. His wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir), caught him watching a sex tape he made with a previous partner and has thrown him out with no further explanation. It doesn’t take Atli long to realize that his parents’ home life is even nuttier than his own—not that this helps him when he does one truly dumb thing after another in bids to get back with his wife and their small daughter.

      In his sophomore outing, writer-director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson finds few redeeming qualities in the humans catalogued here. Every bad situation is escalated by weird behaviour, underlined by gloomy lighting and ominous medieval music. For a lot of the movie’s neatly constructed 90 minutes, this plays as dark comedy, with bleak punch lines arriving as characters fight over increasingly important things—garden gnomes, pets, children—without understanding what’s really at stake.

      There are a couple of breakthroughs, in which someone gives a sympathetic inch or demonstrates some smidgen of self-knowledge. But the director isn’t really interested in forgiveness, and heads doggedly toward a deterministic ending that feels more cynical than illuminating. He basically makes his point early on, by showing that some people with island fever have come to think of an IKEA parking-lot lawn as a nature preserve—the kind that someone else will water and trim.