I’ll never forget watching Ari Aster’s debut film Hereditary last year at Sundance. I wasn’t planning on seeing it originally, because the logline didn’t grab me. I found out some friends worked on it as it was filmed in my home state of Utah, so I thought I might catch it – just because they worked on it doesn’t mean it’s good. Then I found out A24 picked it up, I went to the very next screening, and lo and behold – Hereditary was my favorite film of 2018. It completely caught me off guard, and getting another film from Aster just a year later feels like an embarrassment of riches that I will happily bathe in. Midsommar is going to be near impossible to top as my favorite of 2019. It is another horrifying, unsettling and unrelenting masterpiece from Aster.
Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are university students in an uneasy relationship with Christian secretly wanting to end things. After an unspeakable tragedy befalls Dani, Christian and his friends begrudgingly invite her with them on their trip to Sweden to the village one of them grew up in where a ceremony that only happens every 90 years is taking place.
Aster has had the unequivocal fortune of having two world class performances in his first two films. Toni Collete being the first of course in Hereditary, and now Florence Pugh in Midsommar. I’ve really liked Pugh since I saw her in Lady Macbeth years ago, and she continues to amaze me here. It’s clear quickly in Midsommar that we’re watching an all-time performance from her. Dani calls Christian in a panic, tries to hide it, and then feels ashamed for feeling justifiably worried. The camera stays right on Pugh in one long take and she cycles through several different emotions tremendously. This film is a continuous highlight reel for Pugh, she’s throwing heat in every scene. There’s a scene where she shuts down in the sight of something awful, while others react loudly, she just goes blank and stays silent. I haven’t seen someone portray what it’s like to shut down like that so authentically in a while. Pugh can communicate and portray grief and depression stunningly and effortlessly. There’s one scene where Dani goes to Christian with a justified concern, and he casually agrees with her, but then continues on with the conversation he was previously having, and the camera lingers on Pugh as she realizes a horrifying truth: that she cannot trust the person she loves, and that she is truly alone. The seven different looks that flash across her face tell you more than any line of dialogue ever could. It’s transcendent acting. This is the best performance I’ll see this year. Like how Collette was the only one who could have pulled off her role in Hereditary, I can’t imagine anybody but Pugh taking on this role. I’m already getting ready for the letdown when she gets snubbed by the academy just as they snubbed Collette the year before, laying forth the ignorance of that vile ceremony. Imagine watching LeBron carry that trash Cavs team to the finals in his last year there and going “I think Jeff Green is the best player on this team.” because that’s what the Oscars are.
Now here’s a little info about myself: I love Jack Reynor. I have loved him for years. When Michael Bay cast him in Transformers: Age of Extinction, he said that he had watched him in a film called What Richard Did and had to work with him. I watched What Richard Did, and I was in. I bought controlling stock in Jack Reynor that day. Don’t let Age of Extinction inform you of his abilities. This dude is a tremendous talent, and I love seeing him in a movie as marvelous as this. His character is kind of a piece of shit, and Reynor’s balance of being charming and being a piece of shit is just wonderful. He’s like that reliable 3rd scoring option/glue guy on a team that you can count on to throw up a clean 16/8/8 each night. He’s a perfect complimentary piece for a powerhouse performance from Pugh. This film is actually really funny in parts, and it’s largely thanks to Will Poulter’s performance as Mark. This film would border on being too brutal to be watchable if not for him. He plays the prick of this group of friends, and he does it so damn well. Several of his throwaway lines had me cackling, and the sight of him vaping in this heavenly village just sent me. Every time they would show him vaping I was just gone. William Jackson Harper and Vilhelm Blomgren round out an excellent core of performers.
The look of this film is singular, there is nothing like it. Where Hereditary was rooted in shadow, Midsommar is as bright as can be. We are watching horrendous acts performed in the most serene setting possible. Aster reteams with his Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, and the pair continue to make gorgeous, terrifying magic with their imagery. The way they harness the natural sunlight, and contrast it with some of the most brutal images is just incredible. One of the top 5 most shocking acts of violence I’ve ever seen on film occurs in this film, I don’t recoil often but I was burrowing into my seat here – you’ll know it when you see it. Aster is a filmmaker who knows exactly who to focus on in each scene and each interaction with the way Pogorzelski moves his camera and racks focus, you feel like you’re getting the best version of each scene. Every shot is so sure of itself. There are scenes where characters get high and we see their perspective, and it miraculously doesn’t feel overdone and attention-seeking like they always seem to. It feels natural the way the environment will breathe and contract. It feels authentic as to what it’s like to be on those drugs. The visual effects employed in these shots are stunning, you just wonder how in the hell they pulled it off. This film is a visual marvel, as beautiful as it is punishing. Several images of this film will stick with you long after the credits. The score by Bobby Krlic (also known as The Haxan Cloak) is a perfect companion for Aster’s film. His compositions are these ancient choruses from hell, a dark and foreboding work that always creates an atmosphere of tension, even in the softest sequences of his music. By the end, it transforms into this heartbreaking and healing work of triumph. I remember a few months ago in an interview, Aster described the film as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts.” I could not have put it better myself. I kept coming back to that statement as the film kept going deeper and deeper into madness, manifesting that statement wondrously. See the film, and you shall understand.
Aster has not only gone 2 for 2 so far in his career, but created two undeniable masterpieces to start off. There is no ceiling to this guy’s abilities. He’s a filmmaker I’m so glad is making films right now. I don’t know what happened to him to come up with such evil and traumatizing films, but we are blessed for it. I will follow this guy anywhere. This film is 2 hours and 20 minutes, and I wouldn’t cut a second of it. It is perfect. Midsommar is going to be one of the best films of the year. It is deeply unsettling, darkly hilarious when it wants to be, and by the end it becomes strangely cathartic, and I felt whole. This film beats you down along with its characters, breaking you down farther than you can go, and then it puts you back together again. It is a strange, brutal and unrelenting therapy that only cinema can conjure. I can’t wait to watch it again, get demolished and broken, then reshaped into something whole again.