Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Ari Aster’s Midsommar

Blame Bernie Sanders for giving Millennials a false impression of Sweden. Granted, taxes are high, but it is a capitalistic economy that was arguably less regulated than our own, until we got some relief over the last two years (perhaps you have heard of Swedish companies, like Volvo, H&M, Ikea, and Ericsson). It is also overwhelmingly Lutheran, in an upstanding Calvinist kind of way, but for a group of hard-partying grad students, it is more fun to romanticize pagan solstice rituals. However, the midnight sun phenomenon is legit and it will contribute to the mounting disorientation the abrasively obnoxious tourists experience in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, which opens today in New York.

Dani is the likable one, relatively speaking, but an almost unbearable family tragedy has rendered her an emotional basket case. Her passive-aggressive boyfriend Christian is incapable of giving her the support she needs, because he has been too busy looking for an easy, no-stress exit from their relationship. Yet, he reluctantly invites her along on a trip to the Midsommar festival in northern Sweden, held every nine years at the commune where their fellow anthropology student Pelle lives. He seems a little less randy and crass than the other grad lads, but his interest in Dani may not necessarily be a good thing.

At first, everything is cool when the Americans (and two Brits brought along by Pelle’s cousin) drop acid and gambol in the fields. However, the first ritual is absolutely shocking, even to Josh, who is doing his thesis on midsummer folk traditions. Nevertheless, they stay, to keep the movie going.

There is no getting around the fact Midsommar is nowhere near as scary as Aster’s breakout debut, Hereditary. In fact, it is not really frightening, per se. Instead, more of a string of jaw-dropping, over-the-top set pieces, featuring a fair degree of gore. It is not unlike Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake-re-conception, because the primary response sought by both films is “Dude, WTF,” rather than fear or suspense. It is still definitely a horror movie, but it is all about spectacle rather than existential dread.

Yet, there are still elements of what could be considered hallmarks of a consistent Aster style. Once again, he plumbs the depths of human anguish, putting his lead through a torturous emotional ringer, within the first ten minutes. Arguably, he could be one of the few filmmakers working today who can address themes of grief and guilt in such a brutally honest, unsentimentalized fashion. In addition, we can see the way he employs art and décor to build tension. This time around, it is weird murals and folk paintings that set the tone, much like the eerie miniatures in Hereditary.

Midsommar could even have an outside shot at a best costume Oscar, if A24 campaigns hard for it. A lot of craftsmanship went into the film, but the narrative is rather standard stuff. There are no great surprises here, not even the kicker ending, which would not be out of place in a vintage issue of EC Comics.

Regardless, Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor hold up their ends with uncompromising, all-in performances, even when their characters’ excesses confound the audience’s desire to identify with them, or at least with Dani. Although Christian is a raging jerkheel, we can’t help tiring of her manic swings. Honestly, they are both so unpleasant to spend time with (and wait till you get an earful of Will Poulter as Christian’s horndog pal, Mark), you might just find yourself rooting for the pagan cult to Wicker Man everyone’s butt back to the pre-Christianity era.

That is really how you have to buy into Midsommar­—as a wild dive into a maelstrom of lunacy (again, very much like Suspiria). At times, Midsommar will make you laugh out loud. Other times, you will stomp and shout. It is mostly a good thing when films inspire strong reactions, even if a lot of fans were going in expecting to respond differently.

Of course, horror fans will need to see Midsommar just so they can form their own opinions. It is probably the most eagerly anticipated horror movie and sophomore film since Jordan Peele’s Us (which was better than Midsommar, but Hereditary was vastly superior to the over-hyped Get Out, so let’s call it a draw, so far). Recommended as nutty slice of Scandinavian midnight madness (but not a major new statement in the genre), Midsommar opens today (7/3) in theaters throughout New York, including the AMC Empire.