By CAMERON KAERCHER
Ari Aster’s debut feature, “Hereditary,” was a horror sensation for last year’s summer movie season. While film critics approved of the family drama that spirals into a nightmare, it split audiences with its ambiguous ending and unconventional approach to the scares. This summer, the writer/director is coming back to the theaters hoping to shock audiences yet again with “Midsommar.”
The story follows Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) who are stuck in a cold and barren relationship. After suffering a devastating loss, Dani’s grief is all consuming and grows even more distant from her boyfriend. Then, out of the blue, she learns that Christian’s group of anthropology classmates have organized a trip to Sweden in hopes of studying and participating in the titular festival. Dani is pressured by both the group and by her own fears of losing her boyfriend completely to tag along.
Everyone has a great time; personal problems are sorted out and the central relationship is strengthened by this sun-kissed trip abroad.
If only that were the case…
Ari Aster confidently controls the pace of the story and does not arrive at the Swedish village of Harga until the 30 minute mark. This allows the prelude of the story to be dedicated to setting up Dani as a character. We are seeing the story through her eyes and Florence Pugh gives an incredible performance. She may be the best cinematic screamer since Sheryl Lee in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Her suffering in this first section is so oppressive that when she begins sobbing you can hear the weight of the trauma pressing down on her chest, squeezing out each cry.
It is very important to understand how Christian deals with Dani’s meltdowns because that relationship is the core of the film. Comfort and empathy are also important to the story and these themes are brought back and utilized in the final act of the film in ways that elevate the horror.
When the film starts to indulge in the more R-rated events that happen at this pagan festival, they are only momentary and pretty sparse for a two and a half hour runtime, but this does not lessen the impact of what you see on screen. In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, Ari Aster addressed the scarcity of gore and said, “that’s the least interesting thing about this movie. It’s the thing that’s inevitable.”
The lush cinematography takes advantage of the forest backgrounds and warm sunlight. It invokes the images of the classic Technicolor movies like “Black Narcissus.” Aster has stated in interviews that the whole town had to be built from scratch and the physical locations are really taken advantage of by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski. The camera is free to go anywhere and creates unique images that get seared into your memory.
“Midsommar” is a very strong work of character based storytelling that most of the time feels like a drama with bursts of violence. This should be supported in a year that has been dominated by Disney remakes and sequels.