Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson and Grímur Hákonarson are becoming ones to watch. Hákonarson’s wonderful 2015 feature Rams and Sigurðsson’s Under the Tree, both beneath the guideship of producer Grímar Jónsson, share many of the same traits. Indeed, both films share the main actor in Sigurður Sigurjónsson. What both directors do brilliantly is to take everyday family trivia and extrapolate them to their most tragic, violent conclusions without ever resorting to silliness. If Coenism was a thing, this would be it.
The titular tree under which our concerns lie is in the garden of Inga, played magnificently by Edda Björgvinsdóttir, an angry woman with a vicious tongue still distraught by the disappearance of her son Ugi, who is thought to have committed suicide. Inga’s next-door neighbour Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) wants the tree cut down as it is leaving her sun-lounger in the shade. Eybjorg’s boyfriend Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and Inga’s husband Baldwin – another fabulous role playing on Sigurjónsson’s expressionism of being solely duty-bound – are initially nonplussed by the argument until new incidents start a strain between the two families. Soon Atli, Inga and Baldwin’s son moves back into the family home after being kicked out by his wife and get dragged into the crisis.
Sigurðsson and writer Huldar Breiðfjörð give every relationship their full attention while powering through the narrative. Every second of the 89 minutes running time is used to its fullest; no scene is wasted, no dialogue is aimless. Protagonists and antagonists are constantly switching, making audience compassion and ire frequently bounce back and forth between all characters. It takes a fine eye for pacing to be able to blend a character piece with a thriller, yet Under the Bridge manages both with thoughtfulness and flare.
Sigurðsson delicately plays with sorrow, guilt, anger and paranoia. His love of social get-togethers are key to his work, here detailing the local resident’s meeting getting out of control with marital spats and exhaustive descriptions of other residents sexual exploits. These are used not only to bring through otherwise side-lined character traits but also as comedic relief between moments of family difficulties, which become deeper and darker as the story evolves.
Under the Tree builds slowly and creeps beautifully under your skin. Impossible to discern where the plot is going, it keeps the tension, even with the comedy asides, right up until the last moment. Icelandic film making is in full throttle at the moment and we’re all the better for it.
Dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
Scr: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, Huldar Breiðfjörð
Cast: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir
Prd: Grímar Jónsson, Sindri Páll Kjartansson, Thor Sigurjonsson
DOP: Monika Lenczewska
Music: Daníel Bjarnason
Country: Denmark, Iceland, Poland, Norway
Run Time: 89 minutes
Under the Tree is in cinemas from 10th Aug 2018.