Midsommar ★★★½

Skjall!

Ari Aster's second-at-bat is a peculiarly lopsided film. His first - Hereditary - was a smoke-tinted fright-fest, think The Conjuring-cum-The Sixth Sense, with enough genuine pathos to invest us in the plight of the central family. Midsommar, however, plays like a 2019 re-make of Robin Hardy's 1975 cult classic (but not that cult classic).

In it, Dani and Christian's relationship is in tatters. And, after a particularly traumatic inciting incident, Christian invites Dani to join him and his douchey friends for a trip to a remote Swedish commune's Midsommar festival in hopes of mending the rift. Needless to say: things do not go well.

Where Aster succeeds here, is in his central character of Dani and his exploration of grief - more on that later. Florence Pugh is magnificent as ever here. I've only seen her in Lady Macbeth, but the more I see of her the more I'm certain she has the versatility and raw talent to carry her no matter what project she chooses. She's particularly spectacular here, selling a character suffering from grief, a post-traumatic stress response, and relationship insecurities. In one scene midway through the film, a particularly brutal ritual triggers flashes of her own past trauma in a way that is simultaneously very Movie PTSD and altogether honest. What truly sells this moment, however, is her ensuing reaction to the trigger. The raw fight-or-flight anxiety and palpable discomfort is painfully true to life.

Where Aster fails, though, is in his lackadaisical willingness to fully explore the themes he sets out so beautifully in the first act. So much time is dedicated to showcasing the weirdness of the rituals that he has a hard time developing the themes and ancillary characters in the film. He will have moments at which, by plot-mandated clockwork, a conflict will occur to shepherd characters along their emotional arcs, but it feels as though there is a distinct case of plot mismanagement here.

Visually, Midsommar is also a mixed bag. Its verdant hues are rich and lush and somewhat unexpected given the tone of the film. But it also appears, frequently, washed out without much purpose. The tidy blocking from Hereditary pops back up here, but where - in that film - the style was a visual extension of Annie's compartmentalization of the horrors that befell her, here the style is head-scratchingly superfluous. Maybe I'm just too dense to get it, but the style feels like an odd vestigial hangover from a previous film. What I admire most about Midsommar's visual style, though, (contrived as it sometimes is) are the slick wipe transitions Aster employs. There's some subtle stuff he does in the editing room (and, I'm sure, in the blocking of his scenes) that adds to the overall hallucinatory/bad trip vibe of the film. The picture ends in a fireworks display of a finish and the score swells to give it just that extra oomph, but given the build-up, I also can't help but wonder if the ending (the best sequence Aster conjures in my opinion) would be half as impactful if just the images remained.

Midsommar is a strong second effort, but like with Hereditary, I can't help but feel I'm not seeing quite what everyone else is in Aster. He's a talented filmmaker for sure. And I've enjoyed both of his pictures thus far. But, I can't help but feel he'd be better off just directing his films - or at least letting a second writer help straighten out his ideas and themes.

I give Midsommar a 3.5/5

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