Writer/director Ari Aster calls “Midsommar”(A24), his second full-length feature (after his 2018 masterwork “Hereditary”), an “operatic break-up movie” with fairy tale influences. That’s only partly true. Yes, there are elements that echo some of the gruesomeness of the work of dark folklorists Brothers Grimm.
Yes, the relationship of the two main characters – needy, clingy and deeply depressed Dani (an incredible Florence Pugh) and an increasingly worn-down Christian (Jack Reynor) – is so much on the rocks it should have a strong drink named for it. But don’t be distracted, “Midsommar” is modern horror on par with its predecessor and even includes several similarities, such as the way religious rituals are carried on without questioning their validity or cost to life, the use of fire, and the eventual crowning of a new supreme leader (i.e. the May Queen).
Easily 20 minutes too long, ultimately meaning the difference between a B and a B+ rating, “Midsommar” certainly stands apart from “Hereditary” in its use of light and lighting. Granted it does begin in the most muted of grey winter tones. It’s the perfect mood setting for the beginning of psychology grad student Dani’s slow descent into madness following bipolar sister Terri’s (Klaudia Csányi) murder/suicide of herself and their parents. Adding insult to injury is Christian’s planned trip to Sweden with fellow grad students Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Swede Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), which Dani learns about after the plans have been made. Equally manipulated by Dani and feeling guilty for abandoning her when she is at such a low point, Christian revises his plans to include Dani in the trip.
Arriving in the radiant sunlight of the Swedish countryside near the pagan commune where the orphaned Pelle was raised, the quintet is warmly greeted and almost immediately takes part in some pre-seasonal festival shrooming. The already unstable Dani has a bad reaction, a less than subtle clue for what lies ahead for her and the others.
Once they pass through the archway of the village, along with other newcomers Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia), they find themselves swept up in the festivities. There is food and drink and dancing and singing. There are ceremonies and costumes and decorations that, if you look closely, give you an indication of the kinds of things that will be happening over the course of the celebration.
The idyllic surroundings and the beaming happy folk soon give way to unspeakable horrors. The first of which occurs soon after a communal meal. The shocking double suicide of a pair of elders who, according to the scripture, at 72 have outlived the seasons of their lives and make sacrifices of themselves by jumping off a cliff on the hard and rocky ground below in front of everyone.
Even as some of the outsiders, whose outraged reactions to the rites don’t sit well with the villagers, make plans to leave, they don’t realize that they are also intended to be part of the sacraments. In other word, none of the exits they intend will be by their own hands. One by one, we watch as they meet their grisly fates. The sole survivor (go ahead, take a guess who that might be) sees it all unfold with a mix of horror and joy, two sensations that viewers are also certain to be experiencing while watching “Midsommar”.
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