Writer/director Ari Aster follows up his terrifying feature debut Hereditary with Midsommar, another grim and disturbing tale that will no doubt leave audiences reeling once again.
While both are horror films that feature female protagonists struggling to cope with loss and grief, the narrative structures and thematic ambitions of the two vary drastically. The experience of watching these movies feels different as well: where Hereditary is more of an immediate shock to the system, Midsommar lingers in the pit of one’s stomach for days (and possibly weeks) after the fact.
Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a college student who seeks refuge in her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) after a family tragedy claims the lives of both her sister and her parents. In an attempt to heal their relationship, Christian invites Dani on a summer trip to rural Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter). Guided by Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the group attends a midsummer celebration with the ancestral commune in Pelle’s home village, but it doesn’t take long before the rituals performed there take an unexpectedly sinister turn.
Aster returns with all of the formal rigor that made his first feature an instant classic of the genre. Starting with claustrophobic close-ups on Dani’s anxiety-ridden face, he gradually pulls the camera back to transition into the sweeping wide shots that detail the creepy commune. Pawel Pogorzelski’s hypnotic and woozy cinematography gives the impression that the camera is as sun-poisoned as the characters on-screen. The sound design is detailed and dynamic, using Dani’s labored breathing at points in the film to ratchet up the tension while also bringing us closer to the main character in the process.
Unfortunately, Aster’s control behind the camera isn’t fully reciprocated in his undercooked and somewhat disheveled screenplay. Working from a folk horror premise not dissimilar from The Wicker Man (the original or the Nic Cage remake, if you like) or last year’s Apostle, he implements a few arbitrary subplots that distract from the main narrative at hand while leaving out crucial details of the central storyline as well.
Additionally, the attempts at foreshadowing feel clumsier and more telegraphed in comparison to the setups that Aster interspersed in his Hereditary script.
It all leads to a conclusion that is disappointingly predictable on a surface level but is loaded with resonant subtext and unforgettable imagery that leaves the film on a remarkable high note.
Bringing these final moments home is Pugh, whose stellar, emotionally-wrought performance is as crucial to the success of this movie as Toni Collette’s was for Hereditary. As a wounded soul flailing helplessly in a toxic relationship, Pugh gives Dani an astonishing range of joy and pain upon which to paint her emotional journey and eventual catharsis. The rest of the cast, the majority of whom are adorned with eerily clean white linens and even eerier smiles, set the oppressively ominous tone quite nicely.
Midsommar is a sun-drenched symphony of sadness that solidifies Ari Aster as one of the strongest voices working in horror cinema today.
Coming to theaters this weekend
The Lion King, starring Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, is yet another remake from the Disney Renaissance era about a young lion prince who takes over the throne after his father is murdered.
The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, follows a mild-mannered accountant who takes a vigorous interest in karate after being attacked by a motorcycle gang.
Opening at Cinema Center is Wild Rose, starring Jessie Buckley and Julie Walters, tells the story of a musician from Glasgow who moves to Nashville to become a country singer.
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