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In Theaters: MIDSOMMAR (2019)

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MIDSOMMAR
(US/Sweden - 2019)

Written and directed by Ari Aster. Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Isabelle Grill, Hampus Hallberg, Gunnel Fred, Liv Mjones, Lennart R. Svensson, Anders Beckman, Anders Back, Levente Puczko-Smith. (R, 147 mins)

With last year's shattering HEREDITARY, writer/director Ari Aster immediately established himself as one of the top figures in so-called "elevated horror," a term given to the thinking person's horror films that earn significant mainstream praise, much to the consternation of the genre's fanboys, gatekeepers, and assorted too-cool-for-school edgelords who usually wait 8-12 months to watch said films so they can flippantly dismiss them long after the hype has died down. Aside from Toni Collette turning in one of the best performances in any movie in recent memory, HEREDITARY has quite a bit going on and is the kind of film where each subsequent rewatch has you noticing things you didn't catch before. It was a film about the supernatural, family, dysfunction, legacies passed down, and unimaginable grief. MIDSOMMAR, Aster's follow-up effort, is a different beast than HEREDITARY in many ways, but it's cut from the same cloth and in it, you see patterns and obsessions beginning to develop. Again, we have the element of the supernatural. Again, the main character struggles to cope with an indescribable family tragedy. And again, there's a mysterious group of people who have plans for that character and those around her, but this time, it's even more strangely sinister in the way it's used almost as running interference in service of a much grander design. After a genuinely shocking 12-minute pre-credits sequence, MIDSOMMAR is strangely lacking in overt scares, instead opting for a very methodical slow burn that's relentlessly unsettling, with a suffocating sense of dread, tension, and doom that finally explodes into all-out madness in the last half hour.






After facing that aforementioned family tragedy, college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is virtually paralyzed with grief. She relies on the support of her boyfriend of just over four years ("three and a half," he says before she has to correct him), grad student Christian (Chris Pratt-alike Jack Reynor), who was on the verge of breaking up with her but decided to hold off because the timing wasn't right, given her fragile psychological state. His grad student buddies--Mark (Will Poulter, who co-starred with Reynor in Kathryn Bigelow's underrated DETROIT), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Swedish Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren)--have been looking forward to a long-planned summer trip to Sweden organized by Pelle, but as it draws closer after Dani's grieving and depressed state goes through winter and spring, Christian has yet to mention the trip to her until she hears the guys talking about it being two weeks away. Ignoring their advice to dump Dani, who they found clingy and needy even before the tragedy that sent her off the deep end ("Get rid of her and find someone who actually likes sex," Mark crassly advises), Christian instead invites her along on the trip, where they'll be heading to a remote, rural area of northern Sweden to visit "Harga," the commune where orphaned Pelle grew up after losing his parents in a fire, to observe their unique solstice celebration that occurs once every 90 years.





At this point, it almost has to be mentioned that, yes, THE WICKER MAN is an obvious influence, but Aster has described MIDSOMMAR as "a breakup movie." It was initially conceived as a more straightforward horror film but fleshed out signifcantly when Aster went through a particularly unpleasant breakup. Dani and Christian's relationship is already on precariously thin ice, and while Christian is there for her and says all the things a supportive boyfriend is supposed to say, Aster proceeds to demonstrate a variety of initially subtle and gradually more overt ways that he's kind of a selfish prick, both with Dani and with his friends. The fact that Aster clearly identifies and empathizes with Dani throughout could be a statement on where Aster feels the blame for that breakup may ultimately lie, but regardless, things never seem completely right among the Harga. At first, Aster presents them as harmless, pagan-esque hippie types but a series of strange occurrences--abetted by the way they indulge their guests with various hallucinogens--have the four Americans plus two Brits, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia), brought to the commune by Pelle's brother Ingmar (Hampus Hallberg), growing more concerned about their safety by the day. Things get dicey when they observe a ritual of exactly how the Harga deal with their elderly, but the red flags are seemingly endless: bizarre dining rituals, a caged bear on the edge of the property, strange symbols painted on walls and carved into rocks, a pyramid-shaped yellow house that they're forbidden to enter, an elder boasting that the Harga "observe the incest taboo" of modern society, and a young Harga woman (Isabelle Grill) flirting with Christian, first from afar but soon in increasingly aggressive ways, including baking her pubic hair into a pie. It isn't until Mark, serving as the Ugly American who's only along on the trip to get drunk, high, and laid, relieves himself on a sacred tree that the Harga stop playing nice and start putting their true plans into action.






MIDSOMMAR isn't an easy film, nor will it do much for the Swedish travel industry. It's extremely ambitious and displays an even higher level of confidence than HEREDITARY, from the Kubrickian shot compositions and edits (there's two great bits that invoke that legendary "bone-to-spaceship" cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY), to the obsessively-detailed production design. Important details are inferred rather than specifically spelled-out, both in the artwork and carved symbols spotted in the background throughout and in something as simple as a quick shot of Dani's Ativan prescription, showing that she's already dealing with serious anxiety issues. Aster perhaps tries to juggle too many ideas and story threads (the whole bit with the Harga's deformed oracle is never quite sufficiently explored), but he succeeds in creating a profoundly unsettling atmosphere in what's maybe the darkest and most downbeat film to ever take place almost completely in bright sunlight. Like Collette's work in HEREDITARY, the promising Pugh (LADY MACBETH, OUTLAW KING, FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY) fearlessly dives into this with a devastating performance of exhausting anguish that just builds to the insane climax, which is where those still onboard will find to be a make-or-break proposition. In the end, it's almost like a Swedish cousin to HEREDITARY. There's a cult, there's a family, there's triumph over grief and a moving forward that's like a weight off Dani's shoulders while at the same time a harrowing descent into uncontrolled hysteria. MIDSOMMAR is distributed by A24, and even by their standards of giving wide releases to defiantly non-commercial fare that frequently results in audience hostility (THE WITCH, IT COMES AT NIGHT, GOOD TIME, and even HEREDITARY to an extent), it might be a bridge too far to ask a mainstream, multiplex audience to go along with a two-and-a-half hour art-house horror film that's a symbol-heavy breakup metaphor given a big summer opening on a long 4th of July holiday weekend. That said, a move of such pure balls is absolutely the A24 we know and love.



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