Ari Aster is a bold new voice in psychological horror, the kind that messes ruthlessly with your head. He proved that last year with Hereditary, featuring Toni Colette in one of cinema’s most memorable meltdowns. And now, with the hypnotic and haunting Midsommar, he ventures into fresh territory without losing his grasp of what nightmares are made of.
Aster wittily calls his follow-up a “breakup movie.” He came up with the script while going through his own parting of the ways. That’s as personal as this filmmaker gets in interviews. On screen, he cuts right to the tortured core of mental anguish. Rated R for “disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language,” Midsommar has all those things and more. But the R should also stand for raw and riveting. It’s also potently, profanely funny in in the most warped of ways.
Florence Pugh — a name to watch if you care about actors who raise the bar on their craft — stars as Dani, a young woman who has just endured a tragic family trauma involving murder and suicide. For consolation, Dani turns to her boyfriend Christian, cunningly played by Jack Reynor with what might be called bland malevolence. He says all the right things, but the dude lacks empathy. Dani nags him so incessantly about emotional withholding that his three grad-school buddies beg him to kick her to the curb. Instead, he invites her along on a trip to Sweden with him and his buds. WTF?
It turns out that the guys, who all study anthropology, want to take part in a nine-day solstice festival that happens only once every 90 years in the remote settlement of Halsingland. Mark (Will Poulter), the partyboy of the group, is casually curious. But Josh (William Jackson Harper) is doing his thesis on European midsummer rituals. And Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) was raised in this particular commune. He’s the only one of Christian’s pals who likes the idea of Dani coming along. He has his reasons. They’re not good.
Aster takes an unrushed two-and-a-half hours to tell his tale and the slow-build may test the patience of audiences panting for a shot of cinematic adrenaline. But when he sinks his hooks in, there’s no wiggling off. Pawel Pogorzelski’s expert cinematography drenches the film in sinister atmospherics with the evocative and eerie score by Bobby Krlic drawing us in almost against our will. Take special note of Henrik Svensson’s production design which does a much as the script, perhaps more, to pin us to our seats.
At first, the locals seems friendly and picturesque in their folkloric costumes. The men are avuncular; the women are accommodating and flirty. The American newcomers partake of the ritual’s hallucinogenic mushrooms, which don’t go down easy for the suggestible Dani. She drifts off for hours, perhaps dreaming up everything that follows in the script. That’s one theory, though Aster cleverly sets the stage for several more. Despite the constant sunshine, there are dark doings afoot. A guided tour of the locale — pay strict attention to the paintings on the walls — hold portents that qualify as fair warning. Think the classic 1973 version of The Wicker Man if you want a clue about where this close encounter with a godless cult is going. What’s that caged bear doing in the middle of the square? Is that public hair in the meat pies served at the group picnic? And what fertility rites go on in that painted yellow pyramid where the cult members gather?
Things do get bloody and head-bashingly visceral when a few Swedish seniors come up with brutal methods to avoid aging. And Christian — a provocative name for a protagonist in a movie about pagan ritual — is hit on hard by a local beauty. One sequence, in which naked female cultists of all ages and body sizes have a go at stirring Christian’s bodily fluids, is a carnal hellzapoppin’.
And, oh, about that breakup story. Dani is not one to stand idly by, especially when she dances herself into a frenzy to win the title of May Queen. Pugh — the breakout star of Lady Macbeth and soon to be seen in Greta Gerwig’s upcoming take on Little Women — works wonders in showing us a character who grows in confidence and toxic strength as the film progresses toward Dani’s validating vengeance. Aster doesn’t do much to illuminate the internal lives of his characters the way he did in Hereditary — except for Dani with whom he clearly identifies. Near the end, Pugh offers a smile as enigmatic as any the Mona Lisa could muster. And Midsommar, which simmers with dread, asserts itself as an unnerving spellbinder that dodges the usual terror tropes to plumb the violence of the mind.