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Review: Midsommar

July 3, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Ari Aster burst onto the scene last year with his debut feature Hereditary, a horror movie that offered superior genre thrills through the dramatic story of a family being ravaged by grief. It was always going to be a tough act to follow, but Aster has handily done so with his new film Midsommar, a folk horror movie that has shades of The Wicker Man.

Similar to how fellow budding horror director Jordan Peele successfully overcame the sophomore slump with his second feature Us earlier this year, Midsommar proves that Aster is not just a one-trick pony. This is a confidant, assured, and grandiose work that, love it or hate it – and, trust me, reactions will vary between these two extremes – is undeniably singular.

The film opens with an unsettling and brilliantly staged prologue that shows us our protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh) in the midst of experiencing a family tragedy, and the inadequate response of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) speaks volumes. Christian is reluctant to make himself emotionally available to her and is dragging his feet waiting for the right time to break up.

Christian is planning a trip to Sweden with his buddies Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Mark (Will Poulter), and Josh (William Jackson Harper), and he ends up inviting Dani along out of sympathy. Josh is going there to write his thesis on the ancient pagan rituals being done to mark the annual midsommar festival, which Pelle’s relatives have graciously invited them to take part in on his family’s rural farm. The farm, which is essentially a quasi-hippie commune where hallucinogenic drugs are encouraged to advance your connection to nature, provides the setting for the majority of the film.

To say these erstwhile American tourists experience a culture clash would be putting it mildly, and it’s not long before they discover that there are more sinister reasons for them being invited. The summer ceremonies include bizarre rituals, human sacrifices, fertility spells involving pubic hair in meat pies, and the selection of a new May Queen through a literal dance competition. There is also a bear in a cage that nobody wants to mention. If all of this sounds messed up, that’s because it is, and the story also functions as an allegorical tale about the experience of going through a breakup.

The film is a bit of a slow burn at times, but we are kept fully engaged throughout the nearly two and a half hour running time, as it keeps lulling us in before shocking us with something insane. The amazing cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski pops with vibrant natural colours and really captures the flowery beauty of a Swedish summer, and it provides a surreal backdrop for some pretty weird shit. Pugh carries the film with a great performance as a woman getting slowly sucked into a cult while also finding the courage to escape a bad relationship, and Reynor also does solid work as the boyfriend who doesn’t really want to be with her anymore but also doesn’t have the guts to call it quits.

Ari Aster has described Midsommar as “Wizard of Oz for perverts” and I can sort of see why. There is a fantastical element to this fever dream of a film, and the whole thing almost exists as a wish-fulfilment fantasy for Dani, who seeks to finally free herself from the co-dependent relationships in her life. The film is unnerving and full of deeply disturbing imagery, including some of the most gruesome images that I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie. In fact, it seems to have just narrowly avoided the dreaded NC-17 with its brutal violence and explicit sexual content, settling instead for a very strong R rating.

But I would be remiss not to mention that Midsommar is also absurdly, darkly funny at times, and even weirdly cathartic. It’s a tricky tonal balance that Aster has impressively pulled off. The film is not really scary, per se, but it does have an unsettling feel running throughout that gets under our skin in a lot of deeper ways. It’s a horror movie in broad daylight, a nightmare that unfolds not in the shadows but in the sun, and it provides a totally unique viewing experience. It’s a total trip, and truly a pagan cult breakup horror movie like no other.

Midsommar is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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