Ari Aster's new movie—the follow-up to his hair-raising debut, Hereditary—cries out for some old-school encapsulation. "Freaky" was one term I heard after a recent screening. "Head trip," believe it or not, was another. "Mindfuck" is the one that occurred to me.
These archaic locutions fit the movie's vivid psychedelia. We see a remote forest undulating restlessly in the sun (recalling a similar effect in last year's Annihilation) and platters of meat on a table squirming in anticipation of the impending meal. Hallucinatory fluids are rashly gulped down, and inebriating vapors unwisely inhaled. There are also echoes of Francis Bacon's paintings, the necro-photography of Joel-Peter Witkin, and, most plainly, the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, whose protagonist, like the central characters here, thought himself to be only an observer, but turned out to be woefully mistaken.
Midsommar isn't a by-the-numbers horror movie (although it apparently started out as a for-hire assignment along those lines); but it has horrific elements, among them jolts of ghastly violence. It is also surprisingly funny, playing the mixed signals of normal human interactions like love and trust for unexpected laughs.
Although most of the movie is set in blazing, round-the-clock Swedish sunlight, it begins in the dark snowy night of American suburbia, where, as the movie opens, something terrible is happening to a young grad student named Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh, of Fighting with My Family). This grim event, which the director lays out at unhurried length, convulses Dani's inner world and rocks her already wobbly relationship with her limp-fish boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, of On the Basis of Sex). Dani is convinced that Christian wants to dump her (she's right), and her romantic paranoia spikes when she learns that he and three of his friends—callow wiseass Mark (Will Poulter, of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), earnest Ph.D. candidate Josh (William Jackson Harper, of The Good Place), and an expatriate Swede named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren)—have quietly made plans to fly to Sweden for an epic midsummer celebration at the isolated commune north of Stockholm where Pelle was raised.
Dani has not been told about this trip. Now Christian feels guilted into inviting her along. He hopes she'll decline, then is bummed when she doesn't and agrees to come. Christian's friends, to whom Dani is already a pain, are resentful of her presence. A feeling of very lifelike unease seeps into the movie, and never recedes.
Soon after arriving in Sweden, the group begins tripping on mushrooms; then it's off to Hårga, where the commune's nine-day celebration—which comes around only once every 90 years—is about to get underway. Hårga turns out to be a quaint yet very strange place, basically a large field with a few buildings (including some sort of "temple") and a flower-bedecked maypole. The residents, all dressed in white, are inclined toward long, wordless embraces; children play a game called Skin the Fool; the favored drink is "spring water with special qualities"; and you can never predict where a magical pubic hair will turn up. Interestingly, all the locals are very happy to see that Dani has made it.
I'll say no more about this ambitious but not entirely successful movie. Aster once again displays a bold willingness to push violence—the brutal abuse of flesh and bone—to new artistic extremes without descending into torture porn. He has also worked up a feverish sex ritual that's unlikely to be equaled anytime soon. And there's a ravishing soundtrack, which is filled with pastoral flutes, fiddles and hurdy gurdys, and should definitely stir interest in the work of English experimentalist Bobby Krlic, who scored the film under his professional moniker, The Haxan Cloak.
Unfortunately, the movie lacks the narrative depth and visceral horror of Hereditary; and while Pugh and Reynor have memorable moments (especially Pugh, in an opening monologue delivered in an unsparingly tight close-up), there's nothing here to equal the primal fireworks that Toni Collette brought to that earlier film. There are also some scenes in this two hour and 20-minute movie—especially an endless whirl of hysterical maypole dancing—that might have benefitted from trimming. And while the fiery action toward the end of the film effectively suggests an ancient evil that doesn't know its own name, the final shot struck me as ridiculous, which kills the effect.
Midsommar is a movie that's definitely worth seeing. If you haven't seen Hereditary, though, that one's even more so.