WowMIKEWow’s review published on Letterboxd:
So this is Ari Aster's idea of a breakup movie. Cool. Cool.
So, much like Jordan Peele earlier this year with Us, this is the sophomore feature of a horror director who kind of burst onto the scene out of nowhere. In the case of Ari Aster, his "New Challenger Approaching!" moment came just last year, with Hereditary being one of the most talked about movies of 2018. And, much like Us, I think it's safe to say he's completely avoided a "sophomore slump".
Florence Pugh, who seems to be having the best year ever (she recently starred in the heartwarming, marvelous Fighting with My Family, and is set to star in an adaptation of Little Women this December), stars as Dani Ardor, who we see in the opening struggling within a highly dysfunctional, twisted, destructive family dynamic (a typical Ari Aster family, then). A moment of supreme tragedy and horror shatters her, and causes her increasingly distant boyfriend (played by Jack Reynor, from Sing Street and Macbeth) to stay with her, effectively trapping them both in a relationship neither of them are happy with. This is compounded when she learns he and her friends have been invited by their Swedish friend Pelle to attend a midsummer celebration at his ancestral commune. Her boyfriend is going. He forgot to tell her. She tags along anyway.
I saw this film a few days after a re-release of The Shining, and I definitely got some Shining vibes from this. It's about the same length, for one, and seems comfortable taking its sweet-ass time to get to where it's going. That's not a criticism, since much like The Shining, the journey is just as unsettling as the destination. It's very psychologically-based, for another, full of images that are unnerving on a primal level. They're both films about dysfunctional people dropped into a situation primed to amplify their dysfunction, often with disastrous results.
There's a lot of Wicker Man in here, too (the original, not the narm-tastic remake, though funnily enough, there is a particular image towards the end that does seem to not back to Nicolas Cage's infamous disguise). It should come as no surprise that the very pastoral commune is not quite what it appears. For anyone wondering if something this slow or weird counts as a "horror movie", I'll just say that the first indication that something is seriously wrong occurs via a moment of violence so genuinely shocking, ripples of dumbstruck, terrified silence rippled through the screening I was in. It was like an electric jolt to the system. But no one laughed afterwards, as one so often does after a "jump". They were deathly quiet, like everyone was holding their breath. I think someone whimpered.
All the characters feel nicely fleshed out. I like that Dani's boyfriend (his name is Christian, which surely isn't an accident) is never overt in his abuse of her. It's emotional and subtle, so subtle that I can imagine a lot of people missing it. He feels real, and it gives their relationship (and the fundamental problems therein) real weight. William Jackson Harper, of The Good Place fame, is the researcher character, who's a bit too interested in the ins and outs of what's going on, Will Poulter is the comic relief devil on Christian's shoulder, and Vilhelm Blomgren, as the guy who initially gets them to the commune, is an effective blank slate.
But this is Florence Pugh's movie through and through. I love how she plays her panic attacks - and good on this movie for getting me to think, "Yup, THAT is a panic attack" - as nothing graceful or showy. This isn't an "actor moment", this is a real affliction brought on by stress. Her transformation is largely internal, but we still get everything.
This is such a curiously crafted movie. It's so bright, so sunny, to an almost sickening degree, perfectly contrasting the vile imagery we are eventually subjected to (credit to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski). The film manages to be frightening even when nothing seems to be happening, by having this kind of off-kilter tone to everything. Once again evoking The Shining (and Hereditary, for that matter), we seem to exist in a work just a few degrees shy of reality.
The tone of the thing is like a kettle-pot, slowly building in both tension and intensity. The score by The Haxan Cloak helps with this, moving gracefully between folk-like songs and scratchy, jumpy horror sounds. There are moments of comedy (some of the imagery is so out-there, it almost beggars belief), all expertly judged. Will Poulter gets a couple of de-stressing lines, but they all work within the film. If you were disappointed by the shift in Hereditary (I didn't mind the shift from psychological horror to more overt satanism as much as others, but I know it was a real sticking point for some), I'd definitely check this out, as he more or less sticks to one dreamlike kind of thing all the way through.
This is a real swing-for-the-fences passion project, and I'm so glad it's getting a wide release. Movies like this deserve to be made more often. I know for a fact I'll be seeing it again before its run in cinemas is out (if nothing else, I want to confirm a pet theory of mine that the tapestries that keep showing up all around the commune secretly foreshadow the entire plot before it happens). Some people will surely be disappointed that this isn't a "straight-up horror film" (this is the eternal issue of genre restrictions, which are useless and stupid), but I'd definitely call this as much a horror film as The Wicker Man or The Shining is. This is an engrossing, hypnotic fever-dream, one of the most captivatingly original releases we've had this year so far.