At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Midsommar “2019”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Midsommar “2019”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Folk Horror/Stars: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill, Lars Väringer, Henrik Norlén, Anders Beckman, Julia Ragnarsson, Anki Larsson, Anna Åström, Liv Mjönes, Mats Blomgren, Louise Peterhoff, Agnes Rase, Katarina Weidhagen, Björn Andrésen, Lennart R. Svensson, Tove Skeidsvoll, Anders Back, Dag Andersson/Runtime: 148 minutes

In the long-ago year of 2018, an (at the time) first-time feature film director named Ari Aster decided to unleash upon audiences a slice of cinema known as Hereditary. A film that, without going into spoilers, gives movie goers a fresh look at the time-honored horror tradition of finding oneself being haunted by something and then placed the whole thing through the prism of a dissolving family unit drama that was so mercurial that it managed to make the family dynamic in 1980’s Ordinary People look like the Waltons by comparison. At any rate we saw that in the aftermath of this slice of cinema’s success on both a critical as well as financial level that it wasn’t long before this immensely talented helmer brought his next cinematic project, and slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today, to the big screen. A cinematic project which took the shape and form of a film known simply as Midsommar. A film that, if I’m being honest, I feel can best be described as what you would get if the land of movie magic managed to somehow hear about the various misadventures tourists have happen whilst overseas in Europe, took those misadventures down one of the most terrifying avenues you can think of, and then set the whole thing in Sweden so audiences could totally start to immediately assume we were about to get a much better Wicker Man remake than….whatever the heck that 2006 abomination with Nic Cage was. All jokes aside though dear reader, there is no denying that this slice of cinema is definitely one that, at first blush, could not be more distinct from Aster’s first film. I say this because whereas the former film is very much a disintegrating family drama taken down a horrifying avenue involving being haunted by someone or something, this film is one that chooses to give us a film dealing with personal trauma to say nothing of a simmering breakup and then places these things against a backdrop of folk horror at its finest. Yet even with that distinction in mind though, it should be pointed out that just because the films themselves proved to be different narrative-wise doesn’t mean their levels of quality were. I say this because, much like with Hereditary, I really do dig the heck out of this movie dear reader. Yes, the pace at which it chooses to operate at might be one that will undeniably test the patience of quite a few of you out there to the point that you might just find yourself switching over to something else. If you are among those who are willing to stick with it however then be prepared because, with the aid of gripping and potent work on both sides of the camera, Midsommar is one film that most assuredly manages to be one cinematic nightmare that I promise you won’t soon forget.

The plot is as follows: Midsommar gets its waking nightmare underway by introducing us to our main guide through this madness by the name of Dani. Dani, we rather quickly learn, is a young woman who might be going to school for psychology, but whose own psyche in a twisted bit of irony seems to be a bit of a mess. Not only because her not well upstairs (if you get my drift) sister has been acting seriously off recently, but because her 3+ year relationship with her boyfriend Christian hasn’t been going too hot either. In fact, unbeknownst to our heroine, good ol’ Christian has actually been talking it over with his bros Mark, Josh, and Pelle and already decided that perhaps an exit visa from his relationship with her is the best path forward for him as heartbreaking as that may be for Dani. Yet, before he can do so, it isn’t long before a personal tragedy rocks Dani’s world to the core to such an extent that we see that Christian finds himself reluctantly forced to put breaking up with her on hold due to feeling like that he has to be there for her through this undeniably heart wrenching time. Cut to a few months later and we see that, despite still being in quite the trauma-riddled state due to the incident, Dani gets wind of Christian and his friends being invited by Pelle to visit a summer solstice (or midsommar if you prefer hence the title) festival that’s taking place in a remote commune in the country of Sweden where he grew up. Thus, in an attempt to (as she sees it) try and fix their even more rapidly dissolving relationship, we see that Dani decides to go along with Christian and his bros on this once in a lifetime journey (much to the inner dismay of seemingly everyone but Pele who is delighted to have her join along). However it isn’t long after their arrival to this seemingly affable and tranquil locale made up of equal parts serenity, understanding, psychedelic substances, and seemingly never-ending sun that we see some of the more….intriguing, for lack of a better word, traditions that are a part of the festival start to cause a serious vibe of unease to descend upon our group of travelers especially Dani. Thus is this just a case of unfamiliarity as well as nervousness at being a stranger in a new place being driven wildly out of proportion by an already trauma-scarred mind or maybe, just maybe, is there something genuinely unsettling just waiting in the wings for them all? Suffice it to say that by the time the film is done you will have an answer…..

Now right off, it should be noted that the work done behind the camera on this slow burn chiller is potent and nightmarish in the best way possible. This starts with the brilliant work done by Ari Aster at the helm. Indeed through a distinct mix of legit traditions as well as the cinematic trope of utilizing folklore as a way to conjure up terror, we see that Aster is able to do an extremely effective job at slowly but surely enclosing his characters, and by extension us as movie goers, in a locale they might not be able to comprehend and then proceeds to constantly leave both parties on edge with anxiety-laced terror due to how unsure they are at what is going to happen next. Along with that, we see that when the fact that at least two of the characters are there to observe this festival from an academia point of view is blended together with the fact that a lot of this film takes place in daylight, this film is able to permit you to view this film just as much intrigued as you are unnerved by what you witness unfold. We also see that, through the work of skilled cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, this slice of cinema is able to brilliantly give off the appearance of appearing to be pure, vibrantly radiant, and even psychedelic at points with a dash of room leaning CGI all whilst planting just the right number of seeds of terror and then slowly but surely paying them off in a way that might be methodical, but is also undeniably effective as well. Indeed if there is any single issue that I really have with this film on either side of the camera, I think it would be the tempo that this close to 2-and-a-half-hour movie moves with. I say this because by operating at the tempo that it does, there might be moments throughout this film where you may find yourself zoning out instead of being as immersed in the movie as it is wanting you to be. Thankfully, those moments don’t happen all that often and as a result this film is one that will leave you very much in equal parts mesmerized and recoiling in your seat by what you see unfold before you.  Thus when you also take into account such elements as the top-tier work from the production design and the art design teams at making this film look very much like a Swedish Rose-painting brought to life, the phenomenal costume design team that manage to provide costumes that are an equal mix of colorfully cheerful yet also more than just a wee bit on the creepy side, and a pitch perfect atmospheric and creepy to the hilt musical accompaniment from Bobby Krlick there is no denying that the work done behind the camera is no less than horror cinematic magic at its best.

Of course, the other big element that helps this nightmarish slice of cinema succeed on the level that it is ultimately able to attain would have to be the incredible work done by the cast of players in front of the camera. Without question this most assuredly starts with the immensely talented Florence Pugh in the lead role of Dani. Indeed not only does Pugh do an effortless job at conveying a sense of raw and genuine emotion throughout this, but she also does a great job at really showcasing for us someone who might appear to be alright yet on the inside is still very much a broken individual after experiencing the traumatic event that she had to go through and is thus always seemingly one step away from experiencing a complete and utter breakdown thus adding to the tension present immensely. Suffice it to say then that this is a phenomenal turn from an actress who, with each role she takes on, has managed to showcase that she truly is one of the finest talents of her generation. Besides the work done by Pugh though, this slice of cinema also manages to give audiences a fairly good performance here from Jack Reynor as Dani’s boyfriend Christian. Yes the guy is very much meant to be this film’s resident lightning rod for the audience to place a fair amount of their scorn and displeasure on due to the fact that he doesn’t really treat his girlfriend the way that she deserves to be treated right down to several fairly lecherous choices that he makes through the course of the film. That and if I’m being completely honest maybe he should have broken up with her quite a while back instead of leading her on in the way that he has. Even with that in mind however, there is no denying that Reynor still manages to do a great job with the material that he is given and the payoff to his arc in this film is one that, whilst most definitely twisted to a significant extent, should also prove to be quite perversely satisfying in a way. We also see that this slice of cinema provides audiences with yet another in a collection of performances that I like to call “solid yet highly unlikable performances from Will Poulter aka that one kid from 2013’s We’re the Millers”. Indeed as one of Christian’s friends on the trip, Poulter does a fantastic job with the screentime that he is given at yes bringing movie goers a few laughs, but mostly at being easily the most despicable character in the group to such an extent that don’t be surprised if you instantly find yourself absolutely hating this guy and wishing for something to happen to this guy and fast. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in terrific performances from such screen talents as William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place), Vilhelm Blomgren (who is brilliantly affable with the right hint of enigmatic as Pele), Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia, and Gunnel Fred among others respectively it’s clear to me that this nightmarish slice of cinema might have a few issues here and there, but the work by the talented cast of players in front of the camera is by no means one of them.

All in all and at the end of the day, is Midsommar a perfect slice of horror cinema in the style of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or even the original Wicker Man from 1973? Honestly no, but that’s ok. Few movies rarely are able to attain that so that’s a pretty unfair bar to set. At the same time though, is this a horror film that is sure to gain just as much notoriety (to say nothing of hostility and/or scorn) as…well as that 2006 thing calling itself “Wicker Man”? Thankfully, I can definitely say that is most assuredly not the case either. To be sure, and as previously stated, this film’s relaxed almost lackadaisical sense of pacing can most assuredly prove to be quite the test for a lot of people to handle (especially when the film utilizing it has a runtime close to 2 and a half hours including credits). On top of that, there will be those of you out there who come out of this feeling disappointed because this isn’t what you might call a traditionally “scary” movie. Should you be willing to accept the relaxed pace to say nothing of the fact that this film is more an equal blend of both unnerving and disturbing than anything else then I think it can be said that you will be gifted with a viewing experience that is very much unlike a lot of other films that have come either before it or even since for that matter. Suffice it to say then dear reader that when you factor in nightmarishly effective work from a crew all operating at the pinnacle of their respective ability and on-point work from a game and more than capable cast of players in front of the camera with particular regard to Florence Pugh who is nothing short of a complete and utter revelation in the lead role, Midsommar is more than just another win for its gifted helmer to say nothing of horror cinema in general. Rather, it is also a film that manages to terrifyingly show that not only can spooky things happen in broad daylight, but also (and perhaps even more infinitely horrifying than that), that they can happen right in front of peoples’ very noses and it’s not until it’s too late for them to do anything about it that we see the light bulb turn on and they finally are able to figure that out. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Midsommar a solid 4 out of 5.