I greatly admire Hereditary, Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut, but I completely understand how some moviegoers might have developed an aversion to it by the end. There’s no charity from me to those who rankled at the visual resplendent and insidious thematic brutality of the bulk of the film, presumably because it didn’t adhere to the preferred mainstream horror model of simple concepts and jump scares. But anyone whose pleasurable ride took on a rattletrap rockiness when the film veered sharply to travel down unpaved Bonkers Street in the closing moments just might have a point when they wrinkle their nose at the title’s evocation. The cannon blast of ludicrousness worked well enough for me, but I get the more discombobulated reaction.
The sophomore effort from Aster, Midsommar, takes the excess of his prior feature and starts running multiplication tables with it. The film opens as a young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) experiences a family tragedy, further muddying the relationship with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). An anthropology student in college, Christian was souring on the romance and planning an escape of sorts by accompanying a small cluster of classmates on a trip to Sweden, where they’re planning to observe a lengthy summer solstice celebration in the remote community where Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), another friend from school, grew up. Feeling guilt about Dani’s distraught state, Christian invites her along, much to the irritation of his cohorts (the other two travelers are played by William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter). Upon arriving in the commune-like space, all gathering spaces and idyllic grassy expanses, the visitors size it up as quaint and a little odd. Then, as it will, menace starts to emerge.
As in Hereditary, Aster builds mood with uncommon expertise. With the subtlest shifts — of image, of tone, of performance — he transforms the very soul of a moment. He’s not averse to florid spectacle, as Midsommar proves repeatedly. But his clearest strength is wrenching devastating impact out of small moments. No matter what fevered hysterics Pugh goes through as the film’s madness escalates — and she ably scales mountains of overheated emotion — it is the fragile humanity she brings to the small incursions on her most vulnerable points that have the greatest resonance.
Pugh’s performance is vital. It keeps the film grounded, no matter how luridly fanciful Aster’s imaginings. She’s not joined in accomplishment by her castmates, especially Reynor, who looks genuinely confused as the film roars to its crescendo of a third act. That works for the character somewhat, but his placid, gaping wonderment is so out of step with the story beats that it grows laughable. Similarly, the film actively relies on the anthropologist instincts of the central character to sidestep the perpetual horror movie plot hole of characters opting not to flee at the first sign of danger, but none of the actors portraying academics is at all convincing. Normally, that might not be a major issue. The day jobs of characters are little more than a distant notion in most films. Here, though, the validity of the plot hinges on an intellectual commitment to impartial observation after witnessing a horrific act. Just because the rationale is present doesn’t mean, in its depiction, it’s convincing.
What Midsommar does have in abundance is Aster’s fearless adherence to his own vision, even as it cyclones into lunacy. It is surely the most boldly gonzo wide release film since Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, but blessedly free of the absurdly misplaced artistic self-regard that made the earlier feature into a fingerpaint smear of quarter-baked notions. The not insightful flaws of Midsommar are unmistakable traces of earnest filmmaking ambition. For a director such as Aster, borne by wildly invigorating creative instincts, that approach is far preferable to timidity and restraint.