Written and Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter
As a sophomore effort by the director of the fantastic Hereditary, Ari Aster breaks some new ground, treads over familiar terrain and just opts for plain old weird. This story starts out horrifically, in the most shockingly realistic portrayal of a doom that awaits our heroine Dani (Pugh). Her anxiety over an unclear message received from her troubled sister pushes her to call her boyfriend after being unable to contact her sister or her parents. The laced conversation between Dani and Christian (Reynor) is fraught with a different tension altogether. We know instantly they have a problematic relationship and it’s not going anywhere.
Christian’s emotional distance is in part spurred by his friends, Josh (Harper), Pelle (Blomgren) and Mark (Poulter). They know the score, and they know the complications that have made their prospective plans for a trip to Pelle’s hometown in Sweden a chore to navigate around. The trip is tied to the college thesis for Josh, while Christian, who still hasn’t decided his thesis and Mark were just coming along for the ride. The group is going to observe and partake in the Midsommar solstice ritual. It’s something Pelle speaks fondly of, and it fits right within Josh and Christian’s anthropology studies.
Aster’s understanding of the intricate communication patterns is astute. He knows what people are saying, especially when they are specifically avoiding saying it. The entire first act of the film revolves around this drama and it is riveting with tension. Pugh is an incredible actress, and her ability to exhibit the multilayered commitment to one not committed to her gives the viewer the value of their admission in this time alone. And we still have two acts to go.
Christian, trying to both sides, invites Dani to come with the group to Sweden, while telling the rest of the group not to worry. She won’t go, he tells them. No one believes him. As well they should not.
The group arrives in Sweden and they spend part of the first day travelling to the remote destination. When they arrive at the outskirts, they park the car and immediately begin to imbibe substances which have the effect of altering their minds. A day goes by and they come to. That Dani’s experience is more guarded and terrifying is no surprise. She is still recovering, even months later, from the shock of a lifetime.
The experience of the Midsommar ritual seems like something out of the pagan rituals of lore. Many fair haired beauties dancing around in dresses made for the occasion. The group of visitors is met with fellow visitors from London. Things move along slowly, everyone seems nice, if vacant. Their words mean something different to the natives than they do to the visitors. Like frogs sitting in boiling water, the foreigners don’t know what awaits them, even as they peel off one by one.
The last act of the film is a mixed bag. When it comes to telling the story of Dani and her journey from grief to absolution, Aster succeeds. We understand that everything happening here is as if touched by a force that understands her and her suffering. This will be more clear to the viewer than I can tell here without giving away too much.
That the rest of her group has a different experience should be a given. Some of those experiences are shocking, and some are unintentionally comical. The tension of the theater breaks completely at one point as we see what my friend described as “Mom’s Book Club” standing nude all in a row. I think I understand what Aster was going for, but it completely misses the mark.
The last part of the film feels almost completely like a remake of Wicker Man, with a bit more gratuitous violence. That it all is almost completely foreshadowed by images we’re forced to see takes away any tension that could have been built.
Two films in, we know that Aster knows how to make a tense build and to hold our attention through shock and into a sort of dumbfounded awe. This is not a perfect horror film, but it is a good one from a director that could be one of the best.
As for Pugh, her ceiling seems as high as the sky to this point. Her ability to convey without words is remarkable. It feels like watching a young, more vulnerable Kate Winslet. She should be one of the greats.
If you want to be unsettled by the horror of reality and have a laugh midway through, try this film out. Even if it’s not perfect, it is a good to nearly great film. It’s dedicated film-craft, and worthy of your support.
(***1/2 out of *****)