Courtesy of A24
Ari Aster - the director of last summer’s shock-till-you-drop stunner “Hereditary” - has proven his debut feature was no fluke. Finding new ways to deal with grief, tension, and perverse sex scenes in a compacted two hours and twenty minutes, Aster’s sophomoric follow-up, the mind-boggling and darkly comic head-trip, “Midsommar” will do for pagan rituals what Alfred Hitchcock did for birds and showers.
As with “Hereditary,” Aster once again decides to give the spotlight on trauma to a female antagonist, in this case it’s Dani (a game changing Florence Pugh who is seemingly in every shot and manages to carry this mad science experiment of filmmaking on her tall shoulders) who was recently stricken with one of the most unimaginable horror scenarios one could think of. It’s a staggering opening sequence that’s layered so perfectly, you almost could cut that first 15 minutes off and make it a short film. You almost wonder how Aster could come down (or go up) from such a powerful statement, but this sprawling escapade is just getting started.
While the inciting death in “Hereditary” leads characters down a rabbit hole hard to come back from, “Midsommar” - not ironically - provides an escape. Already entangled in a manipulative relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), Dani is frenetic and desperate for something to ease her unmitigated pain (because her boyfriend wouldn’t know how to help if he tried). Still, Dani makes the ill-advised decision to follow him and his classmates - all anthropology students - on a two month long excursion to a commune in the remote Swedish countryside; a vacation proposition by PhD hopeful Josh (William Jackson Harpers) and his need to finish his thesis on folklore European midsummer traditions, and his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who has invited the squad to visit the remote commune where he grew up. Whatever you do, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
But before the films biggest and darkest twists are revealed, Aster makes sure we’re settled in nicely before pulling out the rug from under us. Capturing the tonal ambiguity of the commune where these kids just showed up, introducing us to the white-clad villagers who grin upon seeing newcomers, and taking extra long and glossy shots of the rustic countryside proves as unsettling and unnerving as a killer stalking its prey. And Aster has clearly done his homework on Pagan rituals and traditions as to not fall too far into cultural appropriation. Because there are moments where “Midsommar” could be headed for “Hostel” territory with the fresh crop of attractive Americans landing into a never before visited country, but Aster is wise to keep our heads guessing as to what comes next, and he does it by, strangely enough, honoring what inspired his topsy curvy script.
There are plenty of mushroom trips that detour down nightmarish paths into full-blown absurdity. We hear the cacophonies and dissonance of the breezes that proves rather futile for our crop of friends, and their fates are decided in creative “WTF” fashion. From there Aster takes a nosedive into the discovery of alluring pagenatries, ritualistic prayer, and gonzo dance numbers. And if you find yourself laughing along the way, trust me - that’s by design.
Equally, “Midsommar” deserves notoriety for being the first rock-solid horror flick - to my knowledge - that takes place entirely in daylight, representing the films greatest strength. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski captures the beauty and grace of the intoxicating setting with the blurring whiteness of the sun and striking scenery in which the colors pop with a serenade of exploration. Though comparisons will be made to “The Wicker Man” - I was getting vibes of a messed up version of “The Sound of Music.” Made clearer as the hills start to come alive with every carcinogen that enters each American’s bloodstream. The visual and color palette alone is enough to clue viewers into the madness unfolding, as the swift adjustments in camera angles foreshadow darker elements at play. Aster is clearly a demonic kid messing in the playground, and it’s a blast watching him work. Throw in Bobby Krlic’s twisted score and you’ve got the makings of a midnight horror classic.
“Midsommar” is a two hour and twenty minute exercise in patience and tension, and I won’t be the least bit surprised to see the film earn the coveted “F” Cinemascore from audiences - a badge it should stamp on its sleeve - because its a divisive film that’s ambitions sometimes outweigh its grasp. Probably because Aster doesn’t provide all the answers, or no answers hardly, likely to leave viewers in a trance they can’t escape. People don’t like what they don’t know, but this is one delirious and manic acid trip worth taking.