Review: Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is madness served with a side of sunshine

I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so guiltily vindicated by a movie as with the final act of Ari Aster’s sun-bleached, dread-dripping “Midsommar,” a film that bears its blood weight in flower petals and doesn’t leave you forlorn so much as utterly disarmed.

I should have expected as much. After the writer-director burst into our consciousness with last year’s swervingly subversive “Hereditary,” I should have remembered that the best method of preparation for his follow-up, by comparison a movie whose terror comes from a much more personal place, would probably be not trying to prepare for it at all.

This time around, Aster’s destination is completely, and masochistically, at odds with his methodology, a project with so much tonal juxtaposition that it’s a bit of a miracle it ends up working as well as it does, even if it takes some time adjusting to its contours.“Midsommar” is a movie about inevitability, the not-so-sweet period of denial about eventual loss and refusing to anticipate its arrival; the feeling we’ve all had that we’ll do anything to stave off an apocalypse – be it death or breakup or the execution of insidious acts – before the worst kind of realization sets in that you can’t even delay it a moment. It’s a masterclass in paranoid ambiguity, in wrenching terror from the unexplained and unexplainable, in creating a false sense of security before another horrible Ari Asterian surprise.

It doesn’t make “Midsommar’s” uneasily deliberate unfolding – the movie has a 2-hour, 20-minutes runtime that feels both liberal and restrained – any more joyful that Aster marinates its environments with a sheen of ultra-isolation. At times it feels like the lush European fields and folk-tale structures the movies takes us to – locales accompanied by Bobby Krlic’s deadly-pleasant lullaby of a score – represent the last peaceful place on Earth. As if if our protagonists can’t survive here, there’s no hope anywhere.

The movie is also absolutely hilarious, one of the more dementedly funny things I’ve seen in some time. It threw me off-guard, and it took me some time to find the right wavelength “Midsommar” was operating on—a fairly frustrating task early in the movie. This is decidedly a more ambitious follow-up to “Hereditary,” and it doesn’t feel destined to be as universally lauded.

Thankfully, Aster doesn’t seem to give a shit.

Much like the New Yorker used domesticity and familial heresy as a disguise for his sadistic side in “Hereditary,” here it’s the humor – a lot of it coming from Will Poulter’s A+ horny snarkiness – that provides ostensible shelter from what we know has to be coming. Early on, when a group of American 20-somethings arrive at the gates of “Midsommar’s” hell – some of them having made the trip for thesis research, some of them for distraction-by-distance – they’re immediately offered to indulge in some drugs, to some uproariously funny effects. Sure, Ari, why not?

The ensuing drug trip taken by Florence Pugh’s Dani, Jack Reynor’s Christian, Poulter and Co. is as much about providing a simpler lens through which to digest this increasingly bizarre movie as it is Aster saying: “Listen. This is my headspace. It’s not going to be pleasant, but if you mold yourself to its crevices, you may come out the other end in one piece.”

He’s winking at us, welcoming us with open arms on grass as soft as carpet while we’re unknowingly being wrapped in a ball-and-chain that will eventually drag us through some fucked-up extremities when we’re at our most bare. Eventually, people go missing. Food and drink is examined with suspicion. Violence manifests, though rarely maliciously, and to such an eerily jubilant degree that you almost wished it were. “Hereditary’s” pitch-dark living rooms are traded for blindingly-sunny open spaces, yes. But there’s a vulnerability to being in the midsummer sun; at least in the shadows you can try and hide.

Everything is working in tandem to reel us in. Everything is working in tandem to make us paranoid, and by God Paimon does it succeed. It’d be easy to say “Midsommar” easily could have been half an hour shorter, but the length feels integral to putting ourselves on the same plane of disbelief the characters occupy. The movie naturally and suddenly goes to places where we have no choice but to look at everything we seen onscreen with doubt; Aster makes abundant use of the peripherals in his shots – endless fields, long dinner tables, cavernous dwellings – that there were moments in “Midsommar” where I wished I was watching it in IMAX so I could try to catch any hint of the wickedness to come, something beyond the strangely intoxicating visuals that Aster plays with, tricks that’ll make you wonder if you’re the only one in your theater noticing them.

Like the foreign visitors in “Midsommar,” there comes a point where you’re not merely observer; you’re an active participant. Pawel Pogorzelski shoots the movie with such enveloping force that wherever you’re watching “Midsommar” from feels like an extension of this increasingly demented anti-fantasyland, as if you’d immediately notice the horrors in plain sight around you if you looked away for a second.

Instead we focus on the horrors centering their sights on Pugh’s Dani. Hers is one of the best performances of 2019, a foreign entity in an unknown plane of existence who becomes impossible to look away from, a modernizing of the Final Girl trope. The more Pugh’s face takes on its own contorted visage, like invisible hooks stretching her into madness under a flower crown, the more mesmerizing she is.

Speaking any more about her turn would be a pitfall to spoiling some of “Midsommar’s” dastardly surprises, but suffice to say I don’t believe it’s coincidence that the moment Pugh begins to go all-in as an increasingly haunted Dani is the moment “Midsommar” clicked as something beyond just a contemporary “Wicker Man,” when it joins, in perfect harmony, the things that for two hours have made this a ride as confounding as it is visceral.

I think Aster has something to say, something even poignant, that will be very much not what people are expecting. I sure as hell didn’t, but for someone whose adoration for “Hereditary” stalls at its attempt to meld the familiar with the demonic, “Midsommar’s” flowery, fiery revelations feel like affirmation of the best kind. There’s a unique return-on-investment that “Midsommar” provides if you’re willing to take a leap and peek through the cloud of smoke invading the organs of cinematic intuition.

Aster goes to ridiculous, complex lengths to manifest something deeply human—a specific scene continues to bounce around in my head like an epiphany severed from the body of reason, if not for what is actually happening to Dani then for the stab of familiarity it provided. It’s a testament to Aster’s direction that the movie unfolds gently with the same, perversely matter-of-fact pace that it later chaotically unravels in. He shows us everything. In turn, he shows us ourselves.

By the time this land’s goriest secrets have made themselves known, I felt like I’d helped carry out something terrible…and I immediately wanted to do it all over again. That might be the movie’s most unnerving trick of all.

 

 

“Midsommar” is rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren

Directed by Ari Aster

2019

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