Midsommar ★★★½

Ari Aster's Midsommar, his sophomore feature following the excellent Hereditary, is one-hundred-percent the movie it intends to be. It also has too much faith in a sluggish screenplay that plateaus tension instead of building it. I thought Hereditary ran into a similar issue during its middle section; however, that film's last act left me in awe. When I went to bed the night after watching Hereditary I made sure to check the corners of my room for something unspeakable. Though Midsommar is made with the same skill, it left me hollow...impressed, but hollow.

It should be noted that while Midsommar is technically a horror movie, it's more concerned with forcing you to bear witness to its themes of grief, acceptance, family, and a relationship that's heading for an inevitable break-up. The story is told through sounds and images that fill the screen with precise measurements in order to constantly evoke a very odd dread. I think my main issue with the film is that at some point the dread is overtaken by the strangeness, and that strangeness was unable to leave me as riveted as Aster wished. I still respect the film-making being done here, which is razor sharp except for a script that doesn't have the material for Midsommar's 147 minute run-time.

Midsommar opens in the cold with anxiety riddled Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with a crises - her bipolar sister has sent a disturbing e-mail, and now she can't get in touch with her parents or said sister. For reassurance, Dani calls Christian (Jack Reynor), her boyfriend of four years who's clearly no longer invested in the relationship. Christian's friends all advise him to break-up with her, which he's reluctant to do out of apathy and cowardice. Things change when tragedy strikes, making Christian decide to postpone the breakup and instead invite Dani to accompany him and his friends to a small commune in Sweden, where they plan to celebrate the summer solstice. Also going on the trip are Christian’s friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Mark (Will Poulter); all have been invited by foreign student Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren), who hails from the northern European country. Upon arrival, the group imbibes the unique customs along with hallucinogenic drugs; the location is beautiful and the people are care-free, but the good feelings eventually give way to something more sinister. Meanwhile, due to Christian's lack of empathy, Dani hasn't been able to grieve in the way she needs, and occasionally succumbs to panic attacks where she can't stop crying. As the nature of their trip begins to change, Dani's anxiety escalates, and Christian is too preoccupied to notice.

The first hour of the film is as deliberately paced as the rest, but Aster was able to unnerve me by the time the opening credits rolled, and I became engrossed into what nightmares he was about to unleash on these characters. The arrival and subsequent scenes at the festival are so bizarre that they're intentionally amusing. The film in general leans on that kind of humor, and it's especially effective in these early scenes because the levity is underscored with something else. Things take their first real turn when Pelle invites his guests to witness an ättestupa, an event that I won't spoil. The scene takes forever to unfold in the best way. You could argue that it takes so long it veers into pretentious territory; however, I'd save that complaint for later in the movie.

It was at this point where the narrative began to plateau for me. Yes, more terrible things happen, but I almost felt the movie treated it nonchalantly, as though we're meant to be looking at the film's events through the eyes of the locals as opposed to the outsiders. If that's what Aster was going for, especially considering how the film ends, then I think it's inspired. The problem is that it makes for a less engaging experience. There's also a middling subplot involving Christian and Josh battling over who's going to get to use the festival for their thesis, which literally lands with a thud.

As far as the theme of an inevitable break-up, the movie presents an extreme version of that. It has a strong beginning in its examination of a failing relationship, where one party takes advantage of the poor mindset of the other. One of my favorite scenes was an early moment when Dani goes from asking for an apology to giving one herself. The way Aster has the characters switch places within the frame is perfect, as it visually showcases a (mentally) abusive relationship.

Similar to Hereditary, grief is presented in an animalistic and frightening fashion. This isn't "movie grief," this is unsettling to witness. Florence Pugh spends the majority of narrative an emotional wreck, walking around like an open wound being picked at. It's the kind of performance that, by a lesser actor, would be repetitive or overdone, but Pugh delivers something raw and pathetic until she gets to share her grief with members of the community in perhaps the film's best scene. It's one 2019's best performances. Jack Reynor is great too, going between being a dick and feeling really bad about it. He has a scene late in the film that's hilarious and horrifying all at once, and let's just say I sympathized. The rest of the cast is solid, with Will Poulter getting some of the film's best laughs just by the way he says a line.

The Wicker Man (the original, not the Nic Cage bear-suit one...though there is a bear-suit in this...never mind) is a clear influence as it's the Godfather of Pagan Cult Horror, but Aster's vision is too singular to feel like a retread. He populates nearly every frame of this movie with riches, many of them coming from the soundtrack. Despite my issues with the narrative and script in general, nearly every scene of Midsommar, taken on its own, is a masterclass in film-making. The combination of cinematography, production design, sound, score and editing create a uniqueness throughout. How many movies can make you smile and cringe just by noticing a character's drink is orange instead of yellow?

Midsommar's final moments are disturbing and oddly beautiful, and if the screenplay did a better job of getting there I'd probably call this a masterpiece. Still, give me this over jump scares any day. Well...this minus about twenty minutes.

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