Ari Aster’s MIDSOMMAR Will Folk You Up

A sun-drenched nightmare that you’ll be unable to shake

So often horror movies are bathed in darkness, a tool to not only conceal what is coming, but what may never be shown. Your own mind is often more effective at building up or conjuring the worst thing possible that could be lurking in the black. We also keep our feelings, or at least our acceptance of what we know, deep down hidden away. Midsommar is a film bathed in light, which writer/director Ari Aster uses to brings these horrors and truths into the open, to devastating effect.

The film begins with Christian (Jack Reynor) contemplating a separation from his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh), a long term relationship that’s run its course, its issues compounded by the problems of dealing with her bi-polar sister. But when a tragedy befalls Dani’s family, the long gestating breakup is again put on hold. Several months later, Christian is planning a visit to Hälsingland, Sweden. The trip is organized by his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who wants to take Christian, along with buds Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), back to his home village to witness a very special festival event called Midsommar. Still being urged to end things with the fragile Dani, he instead invites her to join the group. Upon arrival they are greeted with psychedelic mushrooms, and the trip only gets wilder and more twisted from there, as they become participants in a disconcerting ritual that only occurs every 90 years.

Much like in his debut feature Hereditary, Aster again crafts a complex allegory for grief and loss with Midsommar. It feels like his own deeply personal form of therapy, but the ability to make it connect with an audience is impressive. While his sophomore effort picks up thematic threads, it delves more into relationships, notably co-dependency, all unfolding within the folk horror genre. The influences are prominent: The Witches, The Wicker Man, Kill List, with nods to other genre fare such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and even Hostel. Undercutting all of this is Aster’s focus on a breakup movie; in fact, beyond the horror, the film brought to minds Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It’s an incredibly potent pairing of genres. Midsommar weaves in dancing, drugs, shocking sacrifice, a twisted method of horticulture, pubic hair pies, revenge, and rituals, amongst them one of the most bizarre sex scenes put onto film. Questions abound about what is unfolding and how are these visitors being maneuvered, while witnessing a relationship that is just toxic, chipping away at those dragging it along.

Midsommar isn’t so much scary as its disturbing, rooted in this deep well of emotional grief. But the pagan pageantry adds a perturbing tilt, depicting a religion called Hårga that is sketched out with enough detail and just the right amount of mystery to leave you informed but wanting more. Events are ingrained in the mind with a mean-spirited nature, unsettling imagery, and some gnarly practical effects that are nearly as hard to shake as the emotions that get dredged up during the procession to a soul-searing finale that hits you with a uplifting catharsis.

Florence Pugh has been steadily impressing over the past few years with work in Lady Macbeth, Malevolent, and The Little Drummer Girl. Her work here is incredibly nuanced and at times devastating. Reynor serves as the perfect (or imperfect) foil as Christian, a inward focused, cowardly sort, unable to make the tough decisions and self-serving, especially at the expense of his relationships. While the rest of the cast fill their roles well, notably in terms of exploring themes of cultural differences (Jackson Harper’s budding anthropologist) and cultural tourism (Poulter’s laddish American abroad), the substance given to, and delivered by, Pugh does leave them a little side-lined. The film encircles this relationship, with Aster ramping up the divide between them in some subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.

It’s a testament to the film that the only real problems come from omissions, rather than things in the film. Some of the ritualistic fates of the characters unfold off camera, while an ‘Oracle’ for the village gets very little fleshing out. The rest is absorbing fare, with Aster showing technical flair, along with an impressive grasp of both pace and tone; the film is frankly hilarious at times. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski helps deliver a verdant, rural landscape in a valley, dotted with cabins and other more unusual structures. Stunningly framed and lit, often veering into the psychedelic, it’s a work that intensifies moments and emotions, aided by a discordant, but often beautiful score by Bobby Krlic. As a whole, Midsommar represents Aster stepping up his cinematic craft again after a remarkable debut with Hereditary.

Midsommar is a hell of a trip. From its stark opening, to a sojourn through a dreamy, light bathed land, before regaining focus with a cathartic denouement, it is compelling throughout. Infused with a palpable grief, and castigation of relationships that have run their course, it’s a visceral, unshakable experience that cements Aster as not just a master of the horror genre, but as one of the most potent filmmakers working today.

Midsommar opens on July 3rd, 2019.

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