Midsommar ★★★★½

Somewhere between The Wicker Man and Zardoz sits Midsommar, Ari Aster's follow up to his acclaimed horror breakout success Hereditary. While the introductory sequence suggested Midsommar would be as oppressively miserable as its predecessor, I was pleased to find that Aster managed to balance the darkness with plenty humor, absurdity, and some gorgeous visuals. In fact, it's almost as if he took my major criticisms of Hereditary and actively worked to ameliorate them. Chief of those criticisms was that the supernatural elements usurped the drama, elements that are here left ambiguous or explainable by natural events. Also some of the odd, stilted performances that gave me flashbacks to any of Shyamalan's dreck are no longer present or at least couched in language barriers and communal isolation.

Any review of this film will have a problem with spoilers as it's hard not to mention the movies I name dropped at the beginning. Anyone who has seen Robin Hardy's original The Wicker Man (much less Cannibal Holocaust or any other horror film) will not be surprised by much of the plot. A group of collegiates go to a remote commune populated by a nature cult and get picked off one by one as they naively assume their little anthropology trip is a completely benevolent setup. At the surface level there's some creepy things happening, some decent practical gore effects, and people hyperventilating and screaming like it's The Devils or Possession. It even surpasses Climax in hallucinatory simulation with a hefty helping of magic mushroom-infused warping effects. Much like Zardoz, usage of alien-like cult behavior and eye-popping visual design add to the already disturbing and sometimes confusing (if you live under a rock and have never seen any sort of magic/religious ritual) proceedings.

However, away at this remote commune in the Swedish countryside, the movie's characters are dealing with a lot more than being assimilated into a hive mind or eating pubic hair pies. Florence Pugh plays a young woman, Dani, whose entire immediate family has recently and suddenly died. Her boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Raynor, is emotionally absent and mostly self-centered, reluctantly bringing her along on this trip to Sweden, more than anything, out of guilt about her loss. As the trip progresses, their relationship reveals itself to be toxic and one-sided as Dani often suffers from panic attacks due to triggering events. She withdraws and internalizes these problems and blames herself when confronting Christian about his lack of mindfulness between them. Of all the brutal sequences in the film, this is probably the most disturbingly accurate portrayal of such a relationship as I've seen lately. It's hard to watch, and it eggs us on into celebrating Christian's demise and Dani's self-actualization.

This is another one of those clever things that make Aster's films stand out from most Blumhouse productions and other cheap horror fare. There's some real exploration of what it is to suffer and feel helpless, especially around those who you're supposed to trust and be loved by. Dani is asked, "When Christian holds you, do you feel as if you are home?" It's a difficult thing to deny when your life revolves around this other person. At the same time, the fate that befalls Christian isn't warranted, and it holds up a mirror to the audience. If we gleefully accept the film's violence as justified retribution for emotional failures and wrongdoing in relationships, we have failed to glean any sort of meaningful lessons from a movie that is fundamentally about the relative nature of empathy and the harmonious balance between all life that humans should be striving towards.

There's also some really goofy WTF moments, and whether you're looking for a weird trippy movie, or a slow-burn 70's style horror, or a deep look at how to be better humans, there's something there for everyone. Everyone, that is, except for morons who think creepy little dolls and loud noises are scary.

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