The AsterVerse continues.
Fearful of being alone following a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her college boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for strength, unaware how non-committal he feels toward her. After discovering his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) are planning to attend a unique mid-summer festival with him in rural Sweden, Christian invites Dani out of politeness while secretly hoping she’ll decline… which she doesn’t. The invitation is at the behest of their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who grew up in the isolated village, confiding in Dani that, out of everyone, he is most encouraged she in particular will be attending…
Writer/director Ari Aster must have had plenty of offers and options following his atmospheric yet disjointed Hereditary about (minor spoiler) a cult victimizing a dysfunctional family. He reportedly claimed he didn’t realize how similar his follow-up film was to his debut until after looking back at it, but the big concepts with small details give him away. As so-called “art house horror,” Aster’s freshman entry fell apart rushing toward an ending lacking main-character focus and mismatched explanations with style-as-substance, but audiences were nonetheless captivated. Will trading up from a midnight cult to a daylight festival induce the same dread while giving viewers better reasons to care?
To pull off a scare, you start with a spook; atmosphere is essential. To pull off dread, one must empathize with a victim. Horror can forego both if the characters appear deserving of punishment or are annoying enough not to care about them, but neither seems to be what Aster is going for. For Midsommar, the production is laser-focused upon Dani as the main character, and while more of an ensemble piece than Hereditary (where the main character should have been the son), the linear events build to near-perfect tension before the big payoff. While overlong at two hours and twenty minutes, the result is a substance-induced descent into the madness of strangers, viewed in plain sight under a bright sun instead of hidden in shadow.
The term folk horror is appropriate here, with “modern” visitors assuming their hosts are simple and quaint (read: safe), but to quote Morticia Addams, what is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly. Whereas the hidden naked folks of Hereditary were clearly up to no good — where did they keep leaving all their clothes? — the welcoming locals veer gradually into the bizarre, allowing honored guests to normalize to their odd behavior. Okay, yes, the visitors transgress, but would events have transpired any differently had they not? What does become evident is that chance was called into play, even if the rules and purposes weren’t made entirely clear. It’s still difficult who to brand a villain… depending on one’s point of view.
Other than a stretched running time and a few underdeveloped characters for slaughter, it’s a unique horror experience in spite of obvious similarities to Aster’s earlier film; imagine actually seeing what Westley threatens Humperdinck with in The Princess Bride: “Dear God, what is that thing?!” Additionally, Midsommar’s location looks IMAX-ready, and the performances are tuned to complement rather than stand out; no Toni Collette Oscar clips this time around. Not everyone will enjoy this visceral brand of bloodletting, but it does fulfill the promise of the trailers advertising it — unlike, for example, the remake of Suspiria. By flipping nighttime for daytime and focusing on the best main character, Ari Aster spins another yarn of family-related trauma but this time providing a unique light at the end of a blood-drenched tunnel.
Midsommar is rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly (bear) images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, language, and thinking of seven good uses for a cadaver today.
Three skull recommendation out of four.