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'Midsommar' disturbs and shocks



Writer-director Ari Aster (Hereditary) helms this mystery-horror about young American couple Christian (Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh), who travel with friends to Sweden for a once-every-90-years festival, which they soon discover is run by a pagan cult with sinister intent. (140 min.)

WELCOME An innocent-seeming cult welcomes six outsiders to their annual summer festival, but the "guests" soon discover danger's afoot. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF B-REEL FILMS
  • Photos Courtesy Of B-reel Films
  • WELCOME An innocent-seeming cult welcomes six outsiders to their annual summer festival, but the "guests" soon discover danger's afoot.

Glen Like his first feature, Hereditary, Midsommar is a dread-filled exercise in the slow burn, with the occasional surprise of graphic gore. Pugh's Dani is the center of the story—a young woman who recently experienced a devastating personal loss and who's always just a thought or triggered memory away from a breakdown. Her boyfriend, Christian, clearly wants to move on without her, but he's not enough of a lout to dump her when she's grieving. It's under that shadow that Christian reluctantly invites her to join his friends—fellow doctoral candidate Josh (William Jackson Harper), obnoxious friend Mark (Will Poulter), and Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren)—to Pelle's remote communal village to observe their pagan festival. Josh is intent on doing his doctoral thesis on the ritual. Mark just wants to bed hot Swedish women. Pelle seems like a kind and gentle man and often acts as a buffer between the friends' discordant interactions. As soon as they arrive, they all take magic mushrooms, which sets the tone for a fever-dream experience that will test the friends' alliances and exacerbate the growing rift between Dani and Christian. The setting itself is idyllic—a bucolic and charming compound decorated with rune symbols and populated by beautiful Swedes dressed in white and adorned with flowers. It's also discombobulating since daylight lasts 22 hours a day and time seems abstract. Aster's pulling off the neat trick of scaring the bejesus out of his audience in the light of day instead of the dark of night. Though Pelle's "family" appears to be peaceful and serene, that hovering sense of dread is never far off. When things go off the rails, it's every person for him- or herself.

Anna Aster has an enormous capacity for atmosphere, and the cloaking discomfort he creates feels like gasping for air through a wet cloth. The film is both wonderful and torturous—no matter the idyllic setting, dread is pervasive. From the opening shot there's a lurking sense of "uh oh," especially if you've seen Hereditary. Disquieting camera angles and oppressive soundscapes quickly put the audience in panic mode much like his maiden film. Though instead of sticking with the same tricks, Aster pulls off ill ease in a different—and arguably more intricate—way with Midsommar. Dani is a sympathetic character, both slogging through grief and worrying she's too much and too sad for her boyfriend of four years. He fails to tell her of his plans for a six-week trip to Sweden, and when she accidentally finds out at a party, his only recourse is to invite her along in hopes that she'll skip the trip and leave him to party hardy with his bro friends. To say Pelle's hometown and midsummer festival are far from what the group expected is an understatement. Another one of Pelle's "brothers" brought home two friends from London—an engaged couple named Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe)—forming a group of six outsiders with no idea about what's to come. The commune seems simple enough, steadfast in tradition and honoring their ancestors, but their rituals and motives for bringing in strangers become less than altruistic. Ceremony quickly turns into a visceral horror show, and the remote farmland turns into the world's worst mushroom trip. I'll say one thing—Aster did a fantastic job translating that drug-fueled reality—the world is breathing around them and won't stop spinning no matter how tightly they try and shut their eyes. It's brilliant.

CULTURE SHOCK Christian (Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh) discover the pagan cult's rites and rituals are beyond their understanding. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF B-REEL FILMS
  • Photos Courtesy Of B-reel Films
  • CULTURE SHOCK Christian (Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh) discover the pagan cult's rites and rituals are beyond their understanding.

Glen His execution of drug effects on the users is both spellbinding and nauseating. I felt vaguely seasick during those scenes, which continued to grow toward the film's end. The overall effect of viewing Midsommar took me a good hour to shake. I actually found this film physically unsettling, which is quite a feat since most horror films just aren't scary to me. In Midsommar, there's such plausibility to it all, and something so realistic and natural about both the acting and the interaction and dialogue between the characters. It reminded me a little of Eli Roth's The Green Inferno (2013), though not as tasteless, or Robin Hardy's 1973 classic The Wicker Man. Pugh is clearly on a roll. She was great in Stephen Merchant's Fighting with My Family (2019), the comedy biopic about pro female wrestler Saraya Knight, and she's in Greta Gerwig's upcoming new adaptation of Little Women. She's currently filming Black Widow with Scarlett Johansson. She's having quite the year. As for Midsommar, it's an amazing film, but it's not for everybody. Like I said, it pretty much made me feel sick. I recommend it with caution!

Anna It's a tough pill to swallow and an even tougher one to wholeheartedly recommend. It's sickening and difficult, panic inducing and completely unsettling. It's like watching horror in a snow globe—a miniature world gone awry, and the more you shake it in panic, the more the view gets lost. Midsommar is holding pretty strong in the reviews, though critics seem to favor it more than casual viewers. My guess is that it proves too challenging—it's so unpleasant from the start and continues to be, thrown against the unequivocal beauty of the commune and ceremony. It is, as you said, physically uncomfortable. I too feel it a real feat to find true fright in film these days, but if someone has managed to hit the mark on making me squirm while still holding my breath, it's Aster. I felt a lot like I did after walking out of Darren Aronofsky's Mother!—astounded by the film and quite sure I never wanted to watch it again. This one takes a long while to settle; even writing this days later, I can't stop shaking my head and mumbling thought after thought on Midsommar. I recommend you see it, and I also apologize for that recommendation. It's too good to be missed but a tale to be suffered through at the very least. Be prepared. Δ

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at [email protected].


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