Frank Ritz’s review published on Letterboxd:
I was afraid of walking out of this film. Not because the film was terrifying; in fact the polar opposite. I was afraid to have to step outside, look my whole group of friends in the eyes, and tell them about the emotionally cathartic experience I just had in that theater; I was beaming with nothing but pure elation. This is the furthest thing from a horror movie to me, and I understand it was marketed as such, and coming off the heels of Hereditary, what was anyone to expect? Sure there are moments of horror, and scary elements littered throughout, but what this is to me is a movie about the triumph of spirit, a true “coming-of-age”, a film about growing, dealing with trauma, and becoming one again. I was emotional through the entire experience and the movie I'd liken it the most to honestly is Cassavetes' Opening Night. Whilst they are obviously extremely different movies, I had the same intense emotional reaction with both. Going along the journey with these female protagonist in a world where everyone is trying to keep them down; except those who aren't. It was also weird to sit in the theater, and in a classic self-absorbed fashion, feel like this movie was pulled straight from my psyche and plastered on the screen. Not just in the sense that I could identify with both Dani and Christian (feeling like I've been both in different relationships, or in different situations even), but just in the subjects it's approaching; personal and violent family related tragedy, the fracturing of a manipulative relationship, the dynamic of a group of typical bro males, retreating to an uncommon place to discover oneself, the use of psychedelics, the cult-nature of the society (all societies), deeply rooted and elaborate rituals, the idea that suffering can be rewarded, that your fate is predetermined, and the growth and pure expression of a troubled individual. All the way to the final moments I was on this film's wavelength, and am nervous to return, because this first watch was so special (I’ve seen Opening Night three times, and none have been able to rival that first transcendental watch). It probably has a lot more to do with me than the film itself, being that I’m going through seismic changes in my personal life that all felt... relevant to say the least.
But none of this is to cut short the absolute dynamic and inspiring film-making on display. I was floored by Hereditary, and absolutely adored it (my fourth watch was the night before seeing this - and was my least favorite watch, but still), and this somehow feels like a major leap forward just from a film-making perspective. There was no clunkiness felt; shots didn’t linger beyond sensical practicality, the background information/foreshadowing wasn’t trying to be slyly hidden and instead was integral to the plotting, staging and production design were seamless and creepily realistic/thorough, and gone were flashy camera moves for the sake of them, and instead, constant punitive reinforcement of a state of mind. The mood of this oozes off so casually, because the style never fluctuates, even if the tone of a scene could change on the dime (this thing is equally hilarious as it is horrifying, and it’s usually neither). Aster seems to have a fascination with the world’s he is brooding inside of, and whilst he does have an exquisite god-like control over his narratives visually, and in the script, it seems like he’s just trying to observe. This omnipresent control only adds to the narrative because it’s not new, and it’s not surprising; everything you think will happen does, and yet, that was so fulfilling in the strangest way. If the point of the journey is not to arrive, this is the craziest way to get to the inevitable, which could only exist in a film… or so one would hope. Also, major props to possibly having the most realistic depiction of psychedelics I’ve seen; at least specifically Mushrooms. The subtly is what sold it; everything kind of breathing, and the slightly off-kiltered edge of everyone, and their struggles to communicate.
The cast and characters really go through a tricky balancing act. You simultaneously have to feel they are familiar, yet unique, and then have to be okay with them being stripped of any agency once they are in Sweden. You also have to dislike Christian very actively, whilst never outright hating him (the “nice guy” who’s actually vehemently an asshole), and you have to sympathize with Dani, without ever objectifying her as a victim. Somehow, to me at least, this film succeeds in all of that. The character’s play to their strengths and typicality, and really reside in their uniqueness. Villhelm Blomgren is so overly affectionate and radiates a constant warmth and trust, mostly through his smile, and candor. Will Poulter was made to be the annoying asshole in everything; it’s kind of frightening how natural he seems to be in this role. William Jackson Harper really plays into strong intellectualism, but never dips into realistic intelligence; if that makes sense. Jack Reynor is completely disarming, and uses his appearance to the strongest degree (kind of slubbish and puppy-dog like; yet never exonerating the wolfish interior). Florence Pugh has possibly the most difficult role. She has to cement her character’s internal and external conflicts and emotions within the first 20 minutes, and then the rest of the film ride a constantly shifting wave of emotion. She really does give it her all, and I think I was most impressed when she was just inquisitive while exploring the grounds, and trying to understand the new world she was in. She was able to convey a lot with what is technically so little - they all were. But it was realistic to the situation. They are outsiders coming to a new place, and therefore, they wouldn’t be anything but observational, and yet what’s so painstakingly great, is how ignorant they are to what’s clearly in their face, and how absorbed in their own worlds they are (much like Hereditary).
There are entire sequences that I don’t think will ever leave my brain, and just transmitted me into a euphoric state, reminding me why I love, and want to be apart of, cinema. The reveal of the tragedy with its horrifying and anxiety inducing crawl, Dani’s first bad trip, the strange beauty of the ättestupa, the May pole dance, the crowning, the sex scene, the communal cry, and the ending - these at least are apart of me now. This is also filled with small moments of characters interacting that’s absorbing, or characters ignoring each other/the truth, as well as a beautiful plethora of information about this world that seems almost beyond real. This film felt almost therapeutic in an alarming way. The first 40 minutes when I was stoned out of my mind, I felt so much anxiety in my body, and fear, and I wanted to honestly leave the theater. But then the film continued onward, and I settled into the rhythm, and cathartic release, after cathartic release happened, and eventually, I felt whole.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t generally care for horror movies that I was so enamored by this, and many are disappointed. Perhaps the second viewing will show me the flaws I simply didn’t see. I do think no matter what, I will always enjoy this, and Mr. Aster just plays into my sensibilities. I like nihilistic, doomed, miserablist art, being that it reflects how I generally feel, and yet, there’s so much genuine beauty to be found here as well that… I don’t know. I don’t know! This is really special, and has inspired me immensely. It kind of reminded me of how much up my ass I have been in analyzing and critiquing movies, and forgetting about the joys of pure creation. Probably need to turn off this side of my brain, and just try to make something again. I wonder how much of this review actually has to do with the movie.
If I ever get the pleasure of meeting Ari, I want to give him a big hug, and remind him everything’s okay, and thank him for giving me this film.