In Iceland, one man manages to land himself in a whole lot of marriage-ending trouble when his wife catches him watching pornography on his computer. He is Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), and his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) is not so much outraged that it was porn, more that it was porn featuring Atli having sex with his previous girlfriend. She immediately believes the worst, that he filmed himself cheating on her for the gratification of his own lusts, and throws him out of the house they share with their young daughter. He is forced to return to his parents' house for a place to stay, not knowing they have their own problems to deal with: an escalation, in fact.
If this was an example of Icelandic comedy, you would have to put it down to them having a particularly dour sense of humour, for there wasn't much the rest of the world would find sidesplittingly amusing about Under the Tree, or Undir trénu as it was called in its native land. Not to say there were not moments that would raise a bleak chuckle, but for most people watching they would be few and far between, as director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, who effectively co-wrote his screenplay, preferred to put humanity under the microscope and work out where everyone's breaking point was; some characters have already reached it, others will over the course of the story.
Atli's parents are suffering because his mother has snapped mentally on the disappearance of his brother, a probably suicide only no one has found the body, but they can't talk about their anguish because his mother is unable to face up to her grief. So far, so grim Icelandic drama, but then there are the neighbours, who in her madness the mother starts to believe are conspiring against her when the female half of the couple asks if they could do something about the large tree that casts a shadow onto the neighbours' property, not so good if you want to sunbathe in your garden. From that apparently easily solved issue grows an actual feud, though we're unsure how one-sided it is.
The neighbours don't seem to be tremendously bothered by Atli's parents until the mother flings a bag of their pet's dogshit at them, which is the trigger for her to take her grudge to insane levels, including a gag that was barely funny yet certainly viciously memorable. As all this was going on, with the neighbours not seeming to be descending to their aggression, Atli is trying to save his marriage as he increasingly looks like a weasel, making excuses for some pretty base behaviour that in his own mind is perfectly reasonable, lucky not to get the police called on him for threatening behaviour and even violence. By the half hour mark your faith in humanity may have taken a severe knock by the activities playing out before you, as you marvel anyone gets along with anyone else by that point.
Not just in the film, but in real life too. If the twenty-tens was the decade of bullying and intimidation, then Sigurðsson assuredly had his finger on the pulse as you could just about believe this plot could occur, at least until he went extreme, and even then, the news is full of reports of citizens acting with callous disregard for others and exclusive interest in themselves and their status in whatever neck of the woods they hailed from. Yet he was not here to condemn outright, seemingly going for the "there but for the grace of God go I" option when it came to assess his characters, in an almost anthropological manner, and by extension us watching. Perhaps in schoolmarm manner he wanted us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and recognise how ridiculous we were when we pursued any kind of grudge, though not many would go to the lengths these borderline maniacs did, and there was a sense he sympathised with them in a climate that encouraged nobody to take a step back and see how they were setting about problems that had no real justification to pursue. Sobering, no matter how we were intended to react. Music by Daníel Bjarnason.