Some of us are still reeling from the film "Hereditary," the 2018 disturbing family-horror study written and directed by Ari Aster. So we stepped gingerly into the theater screening "Midsommar," Aster's follow-up. Following is my review of that film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
If you want a theme for your new movie, try this: Collect a group of characters – preferably young characters – and kill them, one by one. It’s a tried and true format, after all, one that’s been used by such diverse artists as novelist Agatha Christie (in her 1939 novel “And Then There Were None”) and filmmaker James Cameron (most notably in his 1986 movie “Aliens”).
Truth is, the basis of every film from “The Evil Dead” to “Halloween,” “Hostel” to “Scream” to “Turistas” has followed the same familiar plotline. The differences have been in tone (the “Scream” series in particular is marked by humor) and in how graphic the violence is portrayed. Oh, and in how stylistically inventive the respective directors are.
Which brings us to “Midsommar,” the latest film by writer-director Ari Aster. Having impressed critics with his last film, 2018’s “Hereditary” – which was his first feature outing – Aster has returned with a project that boasts a similar plot to every film mentioned above.
Which is this: Four young university friends are invited by Pelle, a fellow student from Sweden, to accompany him home to experience his family’s Midsommar festival – Midsommar being the Swedish term for the few days leading up to the summer solstice.
The four carry an ample amount of emotional baggage, particularly our central characters Dani (played by Florence Pugh) and Christian (played by Jack Reynor). The two are a couple, though barely. Dani is grieving the loss of her family – whose death we see played out and which sets the tone for the rest of Aster’s film. Christian, meanwhile, lump that he is, is having serious doubts about their relationship.
Almost immediately upon arriving at Pelle’s home – which is a four-hour drive from Stockholm – they drop an hallucinogen. And things get only weirder from there. Pretty soon, the American quartet and two other outsiders from the UK become involved in the festivities, which in short order include ritual suicide, gruesome death, some overt nudity – featuring full-frontal, male and female – plus ceremonial sex … not to mention the progressive disappearance of most every guest.
Emphasis on “most.” Aster isn’t interested in remaking, say, “The Wicker Man,” Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror film (which Neil LaBute remade disastrously in 2006). As in “Hereditary,” he is more interested in notions of family, even if his concerns play out in a twisted manner.
Twisted or not, Aster has talent. By framing each shot just so, with his camera swerving up, around and even upside down, at times focusing so closely on faces that every pore is visible, Aster propels us through a storyline that, ultimately, will cause some in the audience to shrug their shoulders in confusion.
Certainly his cast, particularly lead actress Pugh – so good in the 2016 film “Lady Macbeth” – proves capable … even if Reynor does at one point deliver a line that earned unintended laughs at the screening I attended.
And prepare yourself for Pugh’s final expression, which feels more mysterious, and far more disturbing, than anything conveyed by – speaking of familiarity – that most famous of enigmatic smilers: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.