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Review: Midsommar Is a Provocative Waking Nightmare

Midsommar

Midsommar, writer/director Ari Aster’s follow-up to last year’s explosive Hereditary, packs many of the same compelling elements as its predecessor. It doesn’t quite come together with the same harmony, but Midsommar will nevertheless leave you chewing on it for quite some time – whether you want to or not.

Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth, Fighting With My Family) plays Dani, a woman struggling with her mental health and trying to maintain her relationship with anthropology grad student Christian (Jack Reynor). Things are strained between the two of them from the jump. Christian’s grad buddies are exhausted of the drama and urge Christian to dump Dani and jet off to rural Sweden with them to check out their friend Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) isolated home village and their nine-day Midsommar festival. Dani is worried her constant emotional turmoil at the hands of a mentally unstable sister is turning him off. She’s not wrong, but when unimaginable tragedy strikes – a starter pistol Hereditary fans know all too well – all bets are off. Not only does Christian not break up with Dani, he invites her to come to Sweden with them in the hopes it’ll be somehow restorative. Spoiler alert: It's not.

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Midsommar deals with a less-than-original premise -- backpackers seeking excitement foolishly led astray by predatory Europeans – by engaging in artful confusion at all opportunities. Aster uses a long, continuous, upside-down shot as the gang travels to Pelle’s remote settlement, reflecting their entry into a deceptively sunny netherworld; his indulgence in more languid cinematography throughout the film stands in terrifying juxtaposition to horrors unveiled in its lengthy 140-minute runtime. A reasonable complaint to levy would be the, at times, durge-like tone and pacing of the story, but those work to ensure maximum impact of the key moments, which range from the hilarious to the off-kilter to the abjectly messed up.

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The bulk of Midsommar takes place during the festival as Christian, Dani and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) explore the compound and take part in costumed ceremonies and festivities. Aster takes every opportunity to show them they’re not at Burning Man anymore and should leave immediately – like the mushroom-infused welcome cocktail or the inbred spiritual leader whose mental deficiencies "allow" him to have an “untouched” mind – but of course, no one listens and they wind up suffering horrible (and weird) fates at the hands of some deceptively (and hilariously) benign captors.

You’ll be tempted to untangle what Midsommar is trying to say because there’s no shortage of symbolism. Parts feel like an indictment of American superiority (or even American evils) by our cultural ancestors as the simultaneously curious and disrespectful visitors become victims. Alternatively Christian and Dani’s utter shambles of a relationship has a lot to say about emotional labor and how modern relationships are affected by changing attitudes in mental health. Or a blueprint for how Coachella would run if it had any courage whatsoever. There are lots of lenses through which you can interpret young Americans getting their asses handed to them by a European vacation. Midsommar is specific yet still undefined enough to leave the same kind of multifarious discourse in its wake that Hereditary did.

That said, it's worth noting that the movie suffers from one form of horror sequelitis that's difficult to positively spin: Aster doubles down on Hereditary’s shock value and stacks Midsommar with that much more tragedy, depravity and blood. There are extended sequences that lean toward torture porn, and we can feel Aster hammering home the point as shot after nauseating shot are launched at the audience with blunt aggression. If you are even mildly squeamish, give Saw III or one of the Hostels a watch to prep your brain.

But even that level of gratuitous gore doesn’t take away from the fact that Aster has elevated the genre once again, and it’s only his second feature. If you’re seeking another original, disturbing experience that won’t allow you leave the theater with a peaceful mind, Midsommar is the perma-sunny nightmare for you.

Written and directed by Ari Aster, Midsommar stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper. The film opens July 3 nationwide.

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