This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Muscala’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
In Hereditary Ari Aster was able to apply arthouse sensibilities to traditional horror and find mainstream success. The follow up is here and it's going to find an audience off of the good will built up from satisfied horror fans that loved Hereditary but I suspect it will unfairly hurt Aster's reputation. Hereditary is a slow burn that pays off in terrifying ways, I still think Colette banging her head on that attic door is one of the scariest moments in anything I've seen. Midsommar, too, is a slow burn but with one notable exception the payoffs aren't likely to satisfy.
The film starts with a lengthy sort of prologue that sets up the two primary thematic interests. Dani (Florence Pugh) has just received a cryptic message from her unstable sister that has her worried about a possible suicide attempt. She calls her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for consolation but he seems distant and Dani knows it which we first see on her face and then hear her vocalize to a friend. It cuts to Christian at dinner with his disapproving friends and it sounds like he's been trying to break up with her for a year.
Another call comes in from Dani and his friends assume it's more "clingy" behavior but it turns out to be much worse. In a totally silent brilliant scene firefighters are shown in a smoky garage turning cars off with police lights flashing blue and red. It's immediately obvious Dani's sister has killed herself but where's the body? They follow makeshift piping for the fumes up to a bedroom and open it up... Only it's the parents and not the sister, she's killed them and herself. Dani's anguished cries take us to the title card.
This grief and her strained relationship with Christian are the through lines that will carry over all the way to the film's conclusion. Christian's detached and generally poor behavior towards Dani is shown in many ways from concealing the trip from her to forgetting her birthday but we get the idea. It's overly simplistic to summarize like this but in some ways the film is about the lies people tell themselves and the excuses they make for others in a bad relationship. It's also about the lasting effects of grief on the human psyche.
Dani suffers from panic attacks and feels constantly on the verge of another breakdown. The smallest thing can set her off, in one scene just the word "family" puts her into a shallow breathing spiral. It also affects her sleep and more specifically her dreams. The fear of abandonment and the last images of her family haunt her, cleverly using those blue and red police lights from the prologue as a signifier that we're in a dream. While the boyfriend thread is given a clear conclusion in her decision to kill him the trauma is not. I think it's a fair reading of the film to say the burning chapel and her final smile represent moving past her baggage but understanding the ending in that way isn't necessary.
Aster does an expert job of creating a palpable sense that something is wrong, it's a very unsettling film well before it flips the switch to insanity. When it does flip that switch it is truly nuts but it's never particularly scary. The exception is the pair of cliffside suicides which are a spiritual successor to the lamp post scene in Hereditary, just as gory and horrific. The other big scenes are frankly sort of funny? There's a lot of this that is so ridiculous that it played to laughs in my theater which was the last thing I expected. On paper being drugged and forced to have sex while surrounded by naked older women moaning in unison is terrifying but on the screen it's so crazy it's funny. Scary moments are scattered throughout but only a couple are extended sequences. My main complaint is that Aster (if he even intended to) is not able to fully capitalize on the very good but very long ground work he does to establish the creepy environment.
On a formal level there's a lot of interesting things going on. His clever editing is on display from the very first moments as he cuts closer and closer to the parent's bedroom with each ring of a telephone. In another scene Dani is panicking and walks into an apartment bathroom that becomes the airport bathroom to seamlessly push the plot along. When driving into the commune the camera twists upside down and back around in a dizzying descent into the otherwordly camp. There are lots of shots from the top down which makes for a neat visual motif that spices things up. The bright and colorful landscape has a great hazy look to it which again highlights the otherwordly feeling.
Florence Pugh is completely brilliant and gives what I hope will be an oscar nominated performance. The best piece of acting in the film might be her opening phone call with Christian. She has this great pleading quality to her voice during the call and has to depict holding back tears as her fear also creeps into the conversation. I was unfamiliar with her prior to Fighting with My Family but after these two films I'm all in on the bandwagon and look forward to watching her career moving forward. Supporting roles are mostly up to the task but the british couple and Jack Reynor as the boyfriend have some spotty stretches. Based on my audience's reactions on the way out this will not be a crowd pleaser but I think it's a great sophomore effort from Aster.