Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Movie Review: Midsommar

Midsommar ***** / *****
Directed by: Ari Aster.
Written by: Ari Aster.
Starring: Florence Pugh (Dani), Jack Reynor (Christian), William Jackson Harper (Josh), Vilhelm Blomgren (Pelle), Will Poulter (Mark), Ellora Torchia (Connie), Archie Madekwe (Simon), Dag Andersson (Sven), Björn Andrésen (Dan), Anders Back (Valentin), Anders Beckman (Arne), Mats Blomgren (Odd), Klaudia Csányi (Terri), Tomas Engström (Jarl), Isabell Grill (Maja), Hampus Hallberg (Ingemar), Rebecka Johnston (Ulrika), Anki Larsson (Irma), Liv Mjones (Ulla), Anna Astrom (Karin).
Outwardly, Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a very different film than his directorial debut from last year – the brilliant horror film Hereditary. That film took place largely at night, largely inside the family home that became increasingly claustrophobic and suffocating as the movie went along. And it also had a very small cast – basically just the four family members, and one outsider. By contrast, almost all of Midsommar happens in the blinding sunshine, outside in bucolic fields of splendor, and while there are only a few major characters – they are constantly surrounded by others – dozens, sometimes seemingly hundreds of others. And yet, from the opening sequences, you know this is the same director. The way he builds dread, subtlety, slowly, is the same. The storytelling is the same – keeping some key plotting off-screen, so that like the characters, we’re in the dark on what is really happening. And while both films contain images that will haunt you forever – disturb you to your core, when you think back over it, not a lot of actual violence took place onscreen. Just two films in, and I already love Ari Aster’s work – and think that he ranks right alongside Jordan Peele as the most exciting voices working in horror films today – and among the most exciting new generation of filmmaker’s period.
If Hereditary was also a devastating family drama in addition to being a horror film – and it was – than Midsommar is a doomed relationship drama in addition to being a horror film – a slow moving breakup film as much as anything else. Aster and others have referenced everything from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Lars von Trier’s Dogville to Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance in addition to a more obvious influence like Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. And those are good comparable to this film – which more than anything follows Dani (Florence Pugh) as she realizes what an asshole her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) really is.
The film opens in winter, and in tragedy, as Dani is worried about an ominous email she has received from her bipolar sister – and needless to say, it doesn’t end well. Flash forward several months, and Dani is trying to put on a brave face – trying to hide her emotions from everyone – even Christian, her boyfriend of 4 years, worried that she will put too much on him. It’s approaching summer, and Christian is planning to travel to Sweden with his friends – Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren) – to Pelle’s idyllic village, for the Midsommar festival. He wasn’t going to invite Dani – but then is kind of stuck doing so anyway. So they head off to the festival thinking it’s going to be a week of drugs, drinking and good times. They don’t know what they are walking into.
I don’t want to give too much of Midsommar away. There are shocking moments in the film, but as I mentioned, they aren’t the kind you normally see in horror films – there isn’t mass amounts of gore in the film – although there are certainly images that will haunt you – and may well turn your stomach. But what Aster is a master at is slowly building up a sense of dread – of impending doom, of mounting unease. From the time they arrive at the field and do mushrooms together, something is, well, off. The movie rarely leaves Dani’s side for most of its runtime – Pugh is remarkable in this film, confirming the talent anyone who saw Lady Macbeth a few years knew was there – and that helps. This movie really is her journey – from the young woman who hides her feelings – doesn’t want to put too much on her boyfriend, who runs to the bathroom to cry, who when the drugs get too intense, runs off to trip by herself, too, well again I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll just say the girl we see in the final shot. The film takes runs her through the emotional wringer in the 140-minute runtime – and you can see how she slowly progresses – how she gets to that endpoint.
It does this all in a remarkable movie. Yes, the unease in the film is constantly mounting, and Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski do a remarkable job of making the wide open spaces in the film feel as claustrophobic as the house in Hereditary. It’s also a brutally funny film – often in the most inappropriate ways, at the most inopportune times. And yet that humor doesn’t break the tension. It’s a kind of remarkable high wire act that Aster is pulling off. Pugh helps a great deal with that – it really is a remarkable performance she delivers here. The rest of the cast is fine – but are more limited. Christian is deliberately the most “blah” guy around – non-committal to anything, lacking drive, lacking – well, pretty much everything. He’s a dud – but he’s a good looking dud. Reynor plays him quite well. Will Poulter is there in a way for comic relief – he is the personification of the Ugly American – literally pissing on what others hold sacred. It’s good to see the talented Harper in a role other than Chidi on The Good Place – and he’s quite good. The entire cast of Swedes are wonderful as well – smiling, happy and incredibly creepy.
Midsommar also sticks the landing in a way I’m not sure Hereditary did – at least not at first. Hereditary is one of the movies I actually did need one of those spoiler explainers to figure out what happened at the end (that made it clear, and the ending worked better the second time through). The ending in Hereditary works – but you really got to put (too many) puzzle pieces together to get there. With Midsommar, its impact is immediate – and yet somehow more complex than Hereditary. That ending means something perhaps many things. That last shot says a whole hell of a lot – and it comes at the end of a truly masterful movie.

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