FILM REVIEW – MIDSOMMAR. With Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter. Written and directed by Ari Aster. Rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence, grisly images. 140 minutes.
Give Ari Aster credit. The writer/director is carving out his own path as a horror filmmaker. While this reviewer was underwhelmed by the violent and incoherent “Hereditary” (2018), MIDSOMMAR is a disturbing film that holds it together despite its epic length of nearly two-and-a-half hours.
The character to watch is Dani (Florence Pugh). She’s somewhat needy and her current boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) seems to be on the verge of breaking up with her. At the start of the film she learns of the horrible deaths of her sister and parents and ends up inviting herself along on a trip to Sweden that Christian and several of his graduate student friends are planning. One of them, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), comes from a remote rural village which has a unique summer festival that they’re going there to see.
At first everything seems fine, if a bit strange. The visitors try to be respectful and open, not wanting to treat the village as a theme park. It’s all quaint and even a bit exciting, as the visitors ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms. The Americans are made to feel welcome guests. Then the first of the festival’s rituals play out in such a horrific fashion that Dani wants to leave.
Plausible explanations are offered, and both Christian and Josh (William Jackson Harper) are interested in studying the community for their theses. Yet as the festival progresses, things get stranger and stranger, Dani finds things disturbing but is growing distant from Christian and, despite her qualms allows herself to be drawn into the activities. It is her journey upon which the film hinges.
Aster simultaneously defies and draws upon genre traditions. On the one hand, most of the film’s horrors and weird twists take place in broad daylight. Indeed, this is the land of the “midnight sun.” On the other hand, he seems aware of previous movies in which outsiders are threatening by an insular community’s rituals, such as “Two Thousand Maniacs!” (1964) and “The Wicker Man” (1973, remade 2006). Things have to seem quaint and plausible, until the reality of it can no longer be denied.
The film’s R rating for “grisly images” is well deserved. As with “Hereditary,” there are things that – once seen – can not be unseen. While this is not a sadistic gorefest like the “Saw” movies, it’s not a movie for the squeamish or the faint-hearted. Yet at film’s end, it leaves us with the question of whether someone who has been shocked and appalled by the proceedings can come to accept them.
Ironically, while “Midsommar” comes at the beginning of the summer, for Hollywood we really are at the midpoint of the season, which began with “Avengers: Endgame” at the end of April. At a time where the studios play it safe with lot of pre-sold sequels, “Midsommar” takes a chance on something different.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.