Midsommar ★★★★★

In the aftermath of a horrific family tragedy, Dani, an anxiety-ridden graduate student played by Florence Pugh, clings to her self-absorbed boyfriend, Christian, played by Jack Reynor, despite her reluctant realization that they are both simply going through the motions in a detached relationship. When she is begrudgingly invited by Christian to accompany him and his friends to northern Sweden, where they will visit the remote ancestral commune of one of his fellow anthropology students in order to observe a secretive 90-year ceremony, the trip seems like a welcome opportunity for her to distance herself from her recent turmoil.

Upon arriving, these Americans find themselves in an idyllic sun-drenched paradise, complete with sprawling green fields, rustic wooden buildings, and white-robed villagers who are happily accommodating to their guests. During the days that follow, Dani and the others indulge in psychedelics and make themselves comfortable in their new setting, but unimaginably gruesome surprises lie in store for them as the truth behind the practices of the religious community manifests itself.

Midsommar, the 2019 sophomore feature from director Ari Aster, overtly wears the influences of earlier folk horror gems, namely The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973), on its sleeve, but adeptly updates the genre for a millennial audience. The villagers in this rural collective willingly embrace the luxuries of contemporary living, as evidenced by laptop connections and a mention of the children gathering to watch the film, Austin Powers, in one of the wooden dwellings, but their age-old customs are highly unnerving to outside eyes.

Aster's brilliant debut, Hereditary, which was my favorite movie of 2018, elicited divisive reactions from its audiences due to an unpredictable narrative enriched by the misdirection provided in its preview trailer. This follow-up is destined for the same mixed reception, mostly because of the shockingly visceral stomach-turning sequences of violence and death. Unlike its predecessor, however, its outcome is graced with a predictable inevitability that turns its back on that strengths of that earlier film's narrative curveballs. Just as the shell-shocked visitors to this unique celebration are unable to summon the courage to flee their new environment, most viewers will remain affixed to their seats even when instinct tells them to leave the theater.

Several critics are referring to the unique commune residents in this movie as a cult, but I prefer not to think of them as such. Their religion, however strange and eerie to us, is as traditional and cherished as our own churches are to us here on these shores. I have always loved cinematic stories about communities of people who live their lives off of the beaten path, hence my affinity for the original version of The Wicker Man, and for recent treatments on the subject, like Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011).

Save for some disturbing sequences that will likely be watched through one's fingers, Midsommar is the most beautiful-looking movie that I have seen in a long time. Green fields and blue skies have rarely looked better in a present-day film, and this is the closest approximation to classic-era Technicolor goodness that we have seen this year. Through all of the visual splendor, Aster toys with our perceptions, most notably during an early moment where Dani looks in a bathroom mirror while her location abruptly changes. A scene where the graduate student visitors are driving through the Scandinavian countryside, an apparent callback to the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, is literally turned upside down, as if to introduce us to the hallucinatory terrors that we will face later on. The look of this screen story is enhanced every step of the way by the sweeping orchestral music score of The Haxan Cloak, the one-man act of British instrumentalist Bobby Krlic.

Fairy tale themes and imagery figure heavily into this sunlit daylight nightmare. Our traumatized protagonist is even orphaned during the opening exposition, as though she were a live-action incarnation of classic Disney heroines. This is no Golden Book happy ending endeavor, though, and its events play out similarly to the darker foreign origin versions of the fairy tales that we have come to know in their innocuous current forms. The dreamily picturesque aesthetic is matched by thought-provoking meditations on what “home” really means to lost souls.

As a single introvert, I often tell concerned friends that I am never lonely when I am by myself, but I tend to feel the most alone when I am around the wrong people. The idea of traveling to a foreign land to find others who share my emotions in a literal sense sometimes has its uncanny appeal, but, after seeing Midsommar, I think that I will just remain at home on the sofa for now.

At the risk of repulsing friends and social media acquaintances, I will proudly endorse this film as a tremendous work of cinematic art.

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