MIDSOMMAR ***** USA 2019 Dir: Ari Aster. 147 mins
The second feature from writer-director Ari Aster is another distinctive, haunting work – it’s a very different film to the much admired HEREDITARY but shares certain cinematic influences and is similarly adept at making us uneasy from start to finish. A lengthy, blood-freezing pre-titles sequence hurls us into the turbulent personal life of our heroine (the outstanding Florence Pugh): while her boyfriend’s group of friends lament her clinginess and eagerly await meeting sexy milkmaids during their upcoming Swedish trip, she has to deal with an extraordinary personal loss. Aster, echoing the most emotionally wrenching moments from HEREDITARY, captures the guttural cries of grief in a way that few mainstream movies would dare. From this initial agony, MIDSOMMAR constructs its blackly humorous, grim modern-day fairy tale. Pugh and boyfriend Jack Reynor join the nine-day Summer Solstice festival accompanied by friends, one of whom (Will Poulter) typifies the comically crass, horny young Americans you might find in a contemporary slasher movie. Thanks to Aster’s framing, use of reflective surfaces and visual distortion, we are on edge before they get there: the drive to the commune during the hottest summer on record involves an overhead homage to Kubrick’s THE SHINING that disorientatingly inverts itself.
It’s a horror movie of unusual length (longer even than the full version of THE SHINING) but Aster’s such an assured filmmaker that it is never in danger of becoming a slog. His confidence is so strong that he places the entire narrative arc on prominent display early on (though most will miss the pivotal details exposed) and positions the bloodiest, most shocking sequence midway to misleadingly suggest the film will be heading in a more conventionally visceral direction. The early details (a caged bear, an ominous temple, a disfigured local oracle named Ruben) add to the sense of enveloping dread while the script nods to horror convention with an only-a-nightmare shock and scenes of insensitive outsiders doing silly things to seal their doom (“You pissed on an ancestral tree!”). Obvious influences include THE WICKER MAN, Polanski and Ken Russell, but there’s an explicit nod to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and the kind of starkly beautiful death tableaux that dominated TV’s HANNIBAL. Aster ends up deconstructing the typical, xenophobic cycle of European-set 21st century American horror and pulls off a clever reversal of the expected final shock in line with the emotional trajectory of Pugh’s empathetic character. The movie, like HEREDITARY has fun with details simply not common in mainstream cinema (lingering scenes of naked people of all shapes, ages and sizes), and makes awesome end credits-use of the Frankie Valli version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”.
Review by Steven West