“Midsommar” is beautiful and grotesque

TMN movie critic Gordon McPherson gave this film 4.5 out of 5 flower crowns.

Director Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” feels cursed in the same vein as Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” and I mean that in the best possible way. 

While watching the film, I was interrupted by an internet connection outage, a crackling thunderstorm and the front door violently blowing open. Spooky much? 

While perverse and self-indulgent to a fault, “Midsommar” is a drug-filled, jaw-droppingly photographed, nausea-inducing exploration of grief, loneliness and companionship, led by an award-worthy performance by Florence Pugh.

Dani, played by Pugh, experiences a devastating family tragedy that leaves her emotionally broken. Her uneven relationship with her passive-aggressive boyfriend Christian —  played by Jack Reynor — only makes matters worse. Eventually, though, Dani reluctantly agrees to accompany Christian and a couple of his friends — whiny, horny, insensitive Mark, played by Will Poulter and socially awkward brainiac Josh, played by William Jackson Harper — to a cultish festival in Sweden under the invitation of Christian’s eerily serene pal Pelle, played by Vilhelm Blomgren. Nestled in the beautiful, remote Scandinavian countryside, this village is a welcoming community of white-clothed, blood-stained, flower-laden environmentalists with twisted ideas of death and rebirth. How quaint!

“Midsommar” is an immaculately shot, creepily atmospheric film that sets the new standard for what a “cinematic experience” entails.

The film is not meant to be passively enjoyed in a party setting with loudmouths blabbering about Snapchat. Rather, to fully appreciate Aster’s carefully constructed descent into chaos, viewers should devote their undivided attention from the get-go. 

The film’s deliberate pace will alienate those with short attention spans, as will Aster’s surreal directorial flourishes. For those who can appreciate the artistry behind such horror classics as Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” though, “Midsommar” will prompt shivers of both fear and pure cinematic ecstasy from start to finish.

When viewers are lured into the film’s hypnotic rhythm, it’s fully and unquestionably transportive. 

Indeed, more than anything else, “Midsommar” is worth seeing for the mind-blowing cinematography alone. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski employs disorienting camerawork, broad daylight, wide open spaces and Wes Anderson-esque symmetry, sometimes mirroring the characters’ pervasive drug use. There’s nowhere for the characters — or viewers themselves — to hide in “Midsommar.” Everything is out in the open, and escape is futile.

The film’s soundtrack enhances the off-putting tone to a majestic extent, complementing both the enchanting and repulsive aspects of the characters’ surroundings.  

This sense of hopelessness is reflected in the film’s unflinching depiction of ritualistic violence. Though I am a highly desensitized individual — check out my English capstone presentation in December for more information — several sequences in “Midsommar” made me queasy, likely from the way Aster lingers on the aftermath of violent acts.

Aster’s uncompromising approach to the material extends to Dani’s psychology as well. As with his previous horror concoction “Hereditary,” Aster showcases his knack for eliciting emotionally raw performances from his leading actors. In this case, Pugh delivers a performance that will surely be discussed when awards season comes around.

Pugh’s performance is so amazing, in fact, that I’m concerned for her in real life. Pugh is required to cover a wide emotional spectrum over the course of the film — happiness, paranoia, grief, post traumatic stress, crushing heartbreak and blood-curdling terror — and does so perfectly.

Without spoiling too much, Dani undergoes a character arc which reflects a prevailing theme — the need for family, even in the most unlikely of places. After experiencing the pain of biological family tragedy, Dani is psychologically isolated from those around her, lacking a reliable support system to help her through difficult times.

Christian, who reminds me of several people who revel in fakeness and behind-the-back gossip, isn’t dependable in the slightest. Neither are Mark, Josh, nor Pelle, who feign compassion for personal and professional benefit — one of the film’s weaker side plots involves conflict over academic thesis writing, for example. 

The ensuing events, though wild and shocking, are oddly cathartic, concluding with a soul shaking conclusion that left me simultaneously nauseous and elated. “Midsommar” is most-assuredly a feminist film, breaking down Dani to her roots and subsequently empowering her to impressive effect.

That’s not to say the other characters aren’t interesting, but they have considerably less depth and development than Dani. Some levity is needed in the morose proceedings, I suppose, but the side characters — Mark and Josh in particular — serve more of a “popcorn entertainment” purpose than anything else. Their fates are inevitable. Boo-hoo.

Of course, the cult itself — with elaborate mosaics, lurid wood carvings, rustic architecture and a large bear in a cage — proves compelling, though somewhat unnecessary. I won’t spoil the more unsettling aspects of the cult, but I wish Aster hadn’t succumbed to similar perversions he did with “Hereditary.” 

Though I wholeheartedly support the themes Aster tackled, the cult’s more disturbing practices sometimes felt overdone, especially during a sequence late in the film which felt leagues longer than it needed to be.

Though Aster’s mixture of maturity and immaturity prevents “Midsommar” from becoming a full-blown horror classic, it nonetheless ranks among the most memorable films of 2019 and won’t leave my mind anytime soon.