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Sunshine and shadows – ‘Midsommar’

July 9, 2019
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Movies rarely surprise us anymore.

Part of it springs from the sorts of movies that get made – while blockbuster franchise films are usually fun, they’re rarely surprising. Biopics tend to be about people we already kind of know. And even Oscar bait offerings have a certain predictability.

Part of it comes from the deluge of trailers and press junkets and preview articles – it’s tough to feel surprised by anything that happens in a film that you’ve been hearing about for months.

But then you have a movie like “Midsommar,” written and directed by Ari Aster, who surprised us all with his debut feature “Hereditary” and apparently decided he would go ahead and do it again. While the content machine certainly churned around this latest film, it never lost the air of mystery that surrounded it. The potential was there for surprise.

And boy oh boy, did it ever deliver.

“Midsommar” is one of the weirder wide releases that we’ve gotten in quite some time, a bizarre and occasionally gruesome puzzle box of a movie rendered all the darker by the fact that it never actually gets dark. You wouldn’t think placing most of the action in bright sunshine would somehow make things more unsettling, but Aster takes advantage of an unexpected truth – the brightest lights cast the deepest shadows.

Dani (Florence Pugh, “Fighting with My Family”) is a college student struggling with the emotional aftermath of a tragedy that has struck her family. Her primary source of support is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, “On the Basis of Sex”), who isn’t necessarily the nicest or most emotionally available dude – particularly when he tells her he’s going to Sweden in two weeks.

In an ill-advised effort to placate Dani, Christian – without asking – invites her to join him and his friends on the trip. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren in his feature debut) has invited Christian, Mark (Will Poulter, “The Little Stranger”) and Josh (William Jackson Harper, TV’s “The Good Place”) to visit his isolated home village – an idyllic commune known as the Harga – to witness a festival celebration that only takes place once every 90 years.

From the moment they land, things get strange. They’ve barely arrived before getting plied with a hallucinogenic psilocybin concoction; they take it at the request of the villagers, but the trip doesn’t go as planned. Before long, things are spiraling into madness.

Dani and the rest are confronted by the strangeness of the rituals surrounding the festival – some of which result in seeming danger and even death. The group is slowly drawn into the proceedings, struggling to come to grips with the bizarre nature of what they’re seeing. The ancient runes, the holy books, the feasting and dancing – a pagan ceremonial celebration, yes, but one with sinister underpinnings that only gradually become apparent.

True understanding of what’s happening is a long time coming, and by the time it arrives, it is too late for any of them to do anything except be swept up into the bright shine of their surroundings. But they’ll soon learn – where there is light, there is always shadow.

Going into any more detail about “Midsommar” would do the viewer a disservice – there’s a LOT of weirdness going on here, but knowing about it ahead of time would rob the film of its visceral impact. Just know that stuff gets strange and occasionally gross, but all of it is rendered in a way that is both narratively engaging and visually stunning.

Seriously, Aster is a brilliant visual filmmaker. His aesthetic is so meticulous, his construction of screen pictures so sharp … it’s marvelous. The colors are omnipresent in their vividness, flooding every scene. The setting is so detailed and finely crafted. It is bright and sunny throughout, yet somehow feels even more ominous because of that fact.

(It’s worth noting that this might be one of the absolute best cinematic representations of what it feels like to be on a hallucinogenic trip that I’ve ever seen. Trying to describe it is futile; you’ll know it when you see it. Suffice it to say, it is one more perfect-fitting piece of a profound puzzle.)

Pugh is fantastic as Dani; so much of the film’s narrative power relies on the intimacy of her journey. She carries the day beautifully as she is drawn ever deeper into this strange new world. It’s a big ask of any actress, but she handles it with aplomb. Reynor does strong work as Christian, constantly finding small ways to encapsulate the arrogance and smug remove of the checked-out boyfriend. Poulter makes a wonderful jerk; he even vapes like a d-bag. And Harper is great as the intellectually-driven Josh, completely disinterested in anything that doesn’t involve his own work and wants. Blomgren’s cheerful stoicism – an attitude shared by most of his fellow commune residents – makes for a counterpoint that is somehow creepier than any overt sinister behavior could ever be.

The rest of the cast – the other commune folks and guests – all hit their marks and contribute to the overall air of weirdness that permeates everything we see. There are lots of chants and dances and other groupthink-driven moments that only work because of the dedication of the ensemble.

“Midsommar” surprised me. I knew it would be weird, but I had no idea it would be THIS weird. It is utterly unlike anything else you’ll see at the movies this summer. And here’s the thing – the more I think about it, the more I like it. If there’s a better indication of artistic merit, I’d love to hear it.

[5 out of 5]

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