Midsommar ★★★★

Lynchian in its conception, Kubrickian in its execution, Tarkovskyesque in its pacing, and Coenesque in its bone dry wit but still firmly an Ari Aster film, Midsommar, the sophomore effort from the Hereditary writer-director is a trip and a half through the mind of a mentally perturbed individual.

Starring the literal personification of a rising star, Florence Pugh, this genre-defying movie requires, nay demands, multiple viewings to fully dissect the multiple narrative and thematic threads that Aster - with almost offensive ease - weaves together in under 150 minutes. Aster’s complete command over the craft of cinematic storytelling is truly astounding; he treats the camera as his personal plaything, showing tremendous technical wizardry, whether he is filming a cramped dark apartment or the vast open Scandinavian countryside. His confidence clearly visible in the incredible patience with which he paints the picture, slowly revealing - often without the audience noticing - salient details that over time come together to form a whole that leaves the viewers equal parts baffled and amazed.

But cinema is not just the visual; even before recorded dialogue, it has been just as much of an art form that appeals to the aural senses. And Aster once again constructs an auditory landscape that encapsulates the listener in a hair-raising, heart-pounding, blood-tingling bubble of noise made up of both the eerie score - composed by the gloriously named music producer The Haxan Cloak - and the intricately designed, totally immersive ambient sound effects.

Even more impressively Aster is not merely a hired gun; he - at least so far - has worked exclusively from screenplays he has written himself. And while Hereditary’s script had some memorable moments - in particular, Toni Colette's haunting rant at the dinner table - Midsommar shows a growing skillset that punctuates what is ostensibly a horror film with genuine jolts of remarkably effective humor, creating a veritable roller coaster of emotions; one moment you are laughing at a bunch of grad students high on mushrooms and the next you are covering your eyes as a couple of elderly Swedes get their heads smashed in.

Aster’s secret to achieving this unique on-screen alchemy is fairly simple; a straightforward and uncomplicated yet deliciously intriguing premise, a fact that way too many movies ignore in favor of pursuing frustratingly convoluted plotlines. Midsommar is a simple tale of a young woman Dani, played by Pugh, who suffers a terrible family tragedy causing her to justifiably lean on her boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Reynor for emotional and moral support. This throws a wrench in Christian’s plans to visit Sweden with his anthropology bros, played by William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and a scene-stealing Will Poulter. The only viable solution is for the boys to take the grieving Dani with them as they attend an obscure hippie festival in a remote commune somewhere north of Stockholm. However, it’s not long before the American tourists - much to their utter shock - realize that there is more to the summer festivities than meets the eye.

What ensues is a mind-bending, psychedelic adventure propelled by florally-inspired pagan rituals, not least of which is a pubic hair based love potion used by the local women to trap outside men into copulating with them. There are also caged bears, guttural vocal harmonizing, iron-man dance competitions, disabled incest babies, a random British couple and screaming. Lots of loud and visceral screaming.

Anchoring all this insanity is a truly marvelous lead performance by Florence Pugh. The prodigiously talented young star is tasked with being the human center around which Aster builds his ludicrously deranged world. Pugh has to convey an empathetic vulnerability, a deeply traumatized interior, a disturbingly unaffected exterior, painfully relatable isolation and an infuriatingly blind compulsion to please her boyfriend and his friends. She does all that and more. Her unbelievably expressive face often occupying the frame’s entire real estate, providing a proverbial window into the soul of a person clearly in need for professional psychological help.

More than ably supporting her in this endeavor are the men making up the rest of the cast. Will Poulter continues to add to his burgeoning reputation as one of this generation’s foremost character actors by effortlessly pulling off the whole ‘ignorant American abroad’ schtick without ever venturing into the dreaded caricature territory. He is the primary source of levity, displaying flawless timing and precise delivery to provide much-needed breathing room amidst all the gut-wrenching tension. For the most part, Poulter’s boisterous antics are perfectly complemented by the straight-faced matter-of-factness of the number of little known local actors who make up the fictional town’s indigenous population. The most prominent of whom, Vilhelm Blomgren, gives an impressively enigmatic performance as the Americans’ guide through this perilous new world. He never telegraphs his true intentions, always playing his cards close to his chest. Not faring as well is Jackson Harper who finds himself playing the audience conduit on perhaps one too many occasions, spending much of his screen time listening to expository dialogue and observing the strange events transpiring around him. A fate he shares - for at least the first two-thirds of the movie - with Reynor as Dani’s somewhat oblivious, somewhat put upon beau. Reynor though does get to bare his ample talents before the end credits roll as he takes center stage in a truly awe-inspiring third act.

Getting to that conclusion, however, does take a considerable amount of runtime and there are points where the filmmakers' self-indulgence takes precedence over the needs of the story being told. There are a few sequences - especially those involving extremely elaborate luncheons - which are beautifully choreographed - blending dazzling cinematography with creative editing - that appear surplus to the movie’s narrative structure and probably could have been nixed. There is also - judging by the reaction of the punters at my screening - a certain level of tonal ambiguity; the movie, every now and then, can be accused of shifting tones too abruptly, not allowing for a reasonable time to adequately absorb the preceding series of crazy shenanigans before moving on to the next.

A fair complaint; but also an inevitable consequence of a movie that refuses to sacrifice ambition for the sake of accessibility. Midsommar insists on spinning more than one plate, at the same time, while also juggling a bunch of flaming bowling balls. And yes, the odd plate may fall and a ball or two may be dropped but what remains is a hypnotic expression of the burning rage that lives within each and every one of us; of the repressed desires and self-imposed shackles. A truly worthy addition in the pantheon of perennially dissected, eternally debated works of art.

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