By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper
Written and directed by Ari Aster
In its opening scenes, Ari Aster’s MIDSOMMAR is immediately recognizable as the work of the man behind HEREDITARY—in the way it utilizes dreamlike, hypnotic style and sound to arrestingly present tragedy, grief and people who express that emotion not in the polite manner of most movie characters, but in the raw way real people behave. Then, once its first act is over and its principals set out on an extremely ill-fated trip, MIDSOMMAR becomes something different: a saga of daylit disturbance that’s more fascinating than it is consistently frightening.
One thing it has in common with HEREDITARY is its showcasing of a female-lead performance that’s one for the genre-film ages. Florence Pugh plays Dani, a young woman whose emotional fragility, as the film opens, is exacerbated by upsetting messages from her sister. Dani seeks advice and solace from her boyfriend, grad student Christian (Jack Reynor), and Aster and his actors decisively establish their dynamic through one phone conversation: She needs him as much as she loves him, and he tolerates her more than he loves her. A breakup seems imminent—and then something happens that sends her into a downward spiral and leaves him with no choice but to stand at the bottom. This could have been the start of an intense drama about guilt and psychological scarring—and it is, in its own way, even as the movie takes its turn into the macabre, albeit one that plays out in a deceptively sunny environment.
That would be Hälsingland, a commune in a remote and beautiful part of Sweden where centuries-old customs are still observed and practiced. Christian and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) have been invited to Hälsingland by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who was born there, and Dani, desperate to escape her home circumstances, wheedles her way into joining them. Upon arrival, before they even get to Hälsingland, Sweden seems like just the sunny paradise she needs thanks to the midnight sun, and a dose of magic mushrooms proffered to all the guests allows her to further step outside her reality. It also offers one of the first instances of the vein of humor that pulses stronger through MIDSOMMAR than it did in HEREDITARY—at certain points, perhaps more than Aster intended.
Once Dani, Christian and the others actually get to Hälsingland, all seems tranquil and positive, the white-clad, flower-bedecked residents welcoming them with smiles and open arms—which, of course, is a signal that things are far more sinister than they seem on the surface. Aster, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, production designer Henrik Svensson and composer Bobby Krlic do a marvelous job establishing and sustaining the sense that this idyllic environment may at any moment give way to menace and true horror. Yet when the other shoe drops (actually, something else does), it’s an unexpected, horrifying jolt, since Aster stages and shoots it as casually as he has the sequences of the commune’s inhabitants dancing and taking dinner. Thereafter, Aster alternates between punchy, revolting shocks—as in HEREDITARY, Aster is not shy about blunt-force-trauma close-ups of cranial damage—and dread-inducing long takes.
These work on more of a moment-by-moment basis than in cumulative fashion, since the overall scenario is familiar, from THE WICKER MAN and other chillers about strangers in strange lands, to the point where it isn’t as suspenseful as it could be. Characters poke around in rooms where they shouldn’t, and come to regret it. A supporting visitor disappears, and it’s explained that he went home early. A Hälsingland girl takes a shine to one of the guys and uses culinary witchcraft to ensnare him. And it’s all leading up to a big ritual whose particulars promise no good for the newcomers. For their part, Dani and co. seem surprisingly unrattled by the unsettling developments they witness, though in Dani’s case, it’s understandable that she’d want to hang around given how little is waiting for her back in the States.
As much as Aster’s creep-under-your-skin aesthetics, Pugh’s deeply felt performance as a woman vulnerable enough to be seduced by this alternate lifestyle holds MIDSOMMAR together. Dani and Christian’s fractious relationship continues to play out as Hälsingland’s collective mask gradually slips, providing the story some dramatic grounding. By contrast, a subplot in which Christian and Josh compete to research individual theses about this pagan community seems inserted just to give the latter something to do, and as a vehicle for exposition. Yet MIDSOMMAR succeeds, through the quiet force of Aster and his cohorts’ craft, in sustaining an off-kilter mood that keeps you intrigued and engrossed throughout the two-and-a-half-hour running time. If it doesn’t leave you as worn out from fear as HEREDITARY did, it nonetheless has you coming away with the shivery afterglow of being wholly transported to an odd and dangerous place—and anxiously awaiting whatever Aster gets up to next.