Whatever you think of the end result, there’s always something thrilling about watching a young director who’s earned a long line of Hollywood credit decide to spend every last cent of it on a single film. And writer-director Ari Aster has certainly done that with his “Hereditary” follow-up, “Midsommar.” Following a group of American grad students on a trip to a mysterious midnight sun festival in Sweden, Aster gives us a slow-burning, boldly-made meditation on grief and the disintegration of a relationship in the loose frame of a folk horror film, yet it struggles to break much new ground beneath its carnival of brightly lit grotesqueries.
Never as impactful, as emotional, or as frightening as the director’s debut — nor nearly as much of a mindf–k as any of its most obvious precursors (“Kill List,” “The Wicker Man,” “Mother!”) — “Midsommar” nonetheless seems engineered to draw fiercely polarized reactions. In truth, it’s neither the masterpiece nor the disaster that the film’s most vocal viewers are bound to claim. Rather, it’s an admirably strange, thematically muddled curiosity from a talented filmmaker who allows his ambitions to outpace his execution.
After suffering a hideous family tragedy that plays out with gripping economy over the film’s opening reel, American student Dani (Florence Pugh) is struggling to pick up the pieces of her life, while also dealing with the slow-motion splintering of her relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Cagey, evasive, and seemingly unaware of just how badly he’s been neglecting his traumatized partner, Christian has been planning a trip to Sweden with his buddies — scholarly anthropologist Josh (William Jackson Harper) and juvenile horndog Mark (Will Poulter) — to take part in a summer solstice festival at the secluded rural commune where their colleague Pelle (Vilhelm Blongren) grew up.
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The main problems with Dani and Christian’s relationship are that Christian is a terrible boyfriend and Dani is on the verge of a breakdown, but what better way to relax and patch things up than a visit to a pagan fertility cult in a foreign country, where they can experiment with powerful hallucinogens in permanent daylight? To the barely-concealed annoyance of everyone except the coolly unreadable Pelle, Dani decides to tag along.
Pelle’s hometown is initially welcoming: full of psychotropic wildflowers, slant-roofed bungalows, and smiling Swedes in white folkdräkt singing and playing pan-flutes. One of Pelle’s “cousins” has even invited his own visitors along, a young couple from England, and at first the community’s elders are cheerfully willing to stop and explain their more peculiar traditions to these outsiders. Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski do marvelously well to suggest a creeping unease behind this verdant, sun-dappled utopia in these early scenes, where the oddities strewn throughout the village – the ancient runes, the unexplained grizzly bear in a wooden cage, the banners and frescoes depicting some very outré rituals — feel all the more ominous for being hidden in plain sight.
The film takes its time setting the stage for this Nordic idyll to take a darker turn, but once it does, Aster steers it in some surprisingly predictable directions. Except for Dani (played with ferocious commitment by a never-better Pugh), none of the characters here have much resembling internal lives, and “Midsommar” suffers from the absence of the lived-in family dynamics that gave “Hereditary” such a punch. More than that though, the film dilutes its two most powerful currents — the gradual unveiling of this cult’s secrets, and the quietly desperate Dani’s complicated reactions to them — with go-nowhere subplots involving Christian and Josh’s academic rivalry and Mark’s fumbling attempts to get laid. (As much as “Midsommar” defies typical horror conventions, Poulter plays the classic “God, I hope he dies first” slasher-movie doofus almost too well.)
Much credit for carrying the film through these rough patches should go to composer Bobby Krlic, whose inventive, eminently confident score supplies quite a lot of the emotional heavy lifting that the screenplay neglects, and imbues even the more ridiculous spectacles with artful intrigue. It’s no surprise that when “Midsommar” finally hits its stride in a wild, hallucinatory finale, the interplay between Pugh’s performance and Krlic’s suddenly thunderous music takes center stage. Pushed beneath the surface for far too long, Dani’s grief, rage, and longing for compassion finally find an outlet, and once the real fireworks start to ignite, you realize how powerfully the film’s themes resonate when they’re given room to breathe. It’s just a shame it takes so long to bring them into focus.