For the follow-up to his blistering and polarizing debut feature ("Hereditary"), writer/director Ari Aster employs some of the same basic elements and swaps out the dark satanic dread of the U.S. for the almost 24-hour sun-drenched satanic dread of Sweden. Had Aster trimmed, say half an hour from the overlong 140 minute running time, "Midsommar" might have turned out even better than "Hereditary," which is saying a lot -- that is, if you actually liked "Hereditary" in the first place.
Certainly not a wishy-washy filmmaker, Aster -- in much the same manner as Stanley Kubrick -- is not looking to please the masses in a way that M. Night Shyamalan does now or Hitchcock did so long ago. Aster takes heavy chances with his narrative choices and only about half of these rolls of the dice work but regarding style, sheer audacity and breaking expected convention, Aster has few contemporary peers.
Aster is lucky he's hooked up with a forward-thinking studio (A24) which has lent him lots of creative leeway and will probably not punish him because of likely low box office takes. Aster doesn't want to nor probably won't become the next Hitchcock or Shyamalan; he seems content to be his own man.
With now two features under his belt, Aster is developing what appears to be a pattern. It is the emotionally drained, psychologically weathered female and the men who don't understand her. For Toni Collette in "Hereditary," it was a son and a husband who couldn't grasp that she, her mother and her daughter were witches. For Dani (Florence Pugh), it is the waning romance with her indifferent boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Josh (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper).
Christian's fourth friend (Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle) -- who is also a Swedish native -- doesn't share the same surface contempt for Dani and invites everyone to his homeland to join in a festival that is held only once every 90 years. For the guys -- especially Josh, looking to hook up with multiple Swedish girls -- it presents a great change of pace and for Dani, it will hopefully be something to take her mind off of a recent family tragedy played out with blunt and unnerving precision in the films' first 15 minutes.
When the quintet arrives in Sweden, Pelle turns everyone on to psychedelic mushrooms which for Dani probably wasn't a good idea, given her fragile state of mind. When they finally get to the festival the next day, everyone is greeted with open, welcoming arms by Pelle's immediate and extended families. Also included in the mix are two of Peele's romantically involved friends from England.
The setting is idyllic. The sun beams down on dozens of hugging and hospitable Swedes donned in white flowing robes with flowers in their hair. Four distinct buildings dot the gathering area, one of them a sort of boarding house where everyone sleeps and an A-frame structure which is strictly off-limits. During the initial tour of grounds, the group passes a cage with a bear inside which Pelle downplays and a panel of bizarre drawings that hints at events to come. The festival kicks off in earnest on the next day with a meal where all are seated at strategically placed tables and what follows is the first of several rituals which is guaranteed to make you grip your armrest and rise you up in your seat with certain body parts firmly clenched.
Aster is not interested in making slasher flicks (which is what this venture started out as), their derivatives or having dopey teens doing stupid stuff (ala the recent "Annebelle" and "Child's Play" flicks) but rather grabbing you by the throat and offering no quarter and he does so the nonchalant ease of Kubrick in "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Shining." Aster also messes about with manipulated audio and film speeds while conjuring up an event that doesn't actually exist in the real world but easily could.
Mildly cloaking the truly abhorrent events in ethereal Scandinavia with an accompanying hippie, communal, opens-arms vibe makes all of it all the more disquieting and skin-crawling. Rather than relying on the tired and expected jump-cut editing and creepy backing score, Aster employs long shots and bucolic visuals and the payoffs are equally hair-raising. David Lynch did something like this with some of his movies, most notably "Mulholland Drive." Anyone can make a film set in creepy places with lots of imposing fog and people dressed in black (think "The Others"). Doing so with "peace, love and understanding" going on in the background is a harder nut to crack and the backdrop barely cloaks a whole bunch more brash demonic pluck and vicious unflinching guile.
If you're on the fence and are not sure if you want to plunk down the needed cash for a first-run theatrical ticket, do yourself a big favor and rent "Hereditary" first. If you can make it through from start to finish and want more of the queasy, kind-of same material, "Midsommar" will probably work for you.
Aster is clearly working up to something bigger here and he's likely going to test the boundaries of not only horror but the medium of film itself along the way. I for one cannot wait for what he does next.