Ari Aster burst onto the scene last year with “Hereditary” a cryptic supernatural thriller reminiscent of horror films from the late 60s-early 70s known for building tension and delivering shocks.
“Midsommar” is a different kind of enigma with enough DNA from Aster’s debut to recognize the two films are joined at some disfigured hip. Florence Pugh who made an impressive debut in 2017’s “Lady Macbeth” delivers a stirring performance in this unconventional odyssey that borrows elements from “The Wicker Man,” “Hostel,” and Ti West’s “The Sacrament." However, make no mistake, this is visionary horror.
“Midsommar” begins with contemporary artist Mu Pan’s tapestry specifically created for the film; his work is perfectly matched to Aster’s hallucinatory imagination (check out his Instagram @mupan1911). As the curtain rises, or in this case Pan’s artwork, we jump into the story which begins with a murder-suicide that leaves protagonist Dani (Pugh) devastated.
Jack Reynor (looking more and more like a younger Chris Pratt) plays Dani’s non-committal boyfriend Christian. The two are in a relationship but it’s obviously one-sided as Christian would rather hang with the boys. His subterfuge behavior is enough to keep Dani interested but basically Christian doesn’t have the backbone to break it off.
To get her mind off the recent tragedy, Dani decides to accompany Christian to a party where they’re joined by his anthropology grad student friends, studious Josh (William Jackson Harper), party boy Mark (Will Poulter), and artistic Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). It slips out that the guys are planning a month-long trip to Sweden to hang with Pelle’s family who lives in a self-sustaining commune. Christian never told Dani about the trip and so out of guilt, he asks her to come along. Mark takes umbrage to the invite feeling that it may interfere with his plans to get laid and party, but Pelle seems delighted that Dani is coming along, with good reason.
As the five head to Sweden, an ominous “Hostel” vibe fills the air as if Eli Roth boarded the plane. The journey will take them to the northern part of the country where the sun does not set during this part of the year, the sky darkens a bit, but daylight remains constant. Pawel Pogorzelski’s keen cinematography captures the beauty of Hungary’s countryside as it fills in for Sweden.
Upon arrival at the commune, the group is welcomed with open arms by the residents dressed all in white. While everyone is welcoming, Henrik Svensson’s production design offers enough clues that Dorothy’s iconic line “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore” seems appropriate. In a large field secluded by hills and forest, we find the “Harga” commune with oddly shaped buildings, a large barn, a triangular yellow temple, a towering Maypole, and a bear in a cage (don’t ask). Sure, Dani and the group took some magic mushrooms earlier but that high is long gone.
Aster’s narrative is a sinister take on Sweden’s nine-day summer solstice festival that combines the country’s folklore with Nordic mythology in one of the film’s most shocking scenes. It’s brutal, gory and the beginning of a chain of events that will leave the audience bewildered. Of course, you have to remember that Toni Collette sawed off her own head in Aster’s last film. There is a big difference between the shocks in “Hereditary” and the gore of say an Eli Roth film as opposed to “Midsommar’s” carnage.
The setting and the perpetrators are so contradictory to the butchery that it takes a minute for your brain to register what you are seeing. There are visuals in the film that stay with you long after leaving the theater. I was in a stupor for at least a half hour after the screening.
You must appreciate the level of detail that went into Aster’s film. From the runic alphabet to the floral headdresses and costumes based on actual folklore, “Midsommar” is a feast for the eyes. That may be one reason why the film’s shocks are so effective. As your fixated on the screen trying to absorb the visual palette with wonderment, that sense of discovery is jarred by a WTF scene that completely throws you off balance.
The 140-minute film asks the audience to be patient as Aster sets the table for what will lead to a climax beyond imagination, at least ours. “The Wicker Man” immediately comes to mind but then again so does the sci-fi classic “Logan’s Run.” Aster seems to be pulling from everywhere and everything but there is a method to this madness that leads to a visionary horror film.
“Midsommar” is not for everyone and it’s surprising how A24 has managed to book this film at mainstream movie theaters alongside the usual art-house run (a testament to the strength of “Hereditary”). I think it’s terrific now that more moviegoers will have a chance to see the film. But then again if you break the film down to the core and look past the peculiarity it’s really about a toxic relationship and in alternate universe Ariana Grande’s “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored” would play over the closing credits.
(3 ½ stars)