At long last, “Midsommar” asks the cinematic question we’ve all been waiting for: How, precisely, does one say “completely bonkers” in Swedish?
Fans of highfalutin horror have been awaiting “Midsommar” with interest since last year, when the writer-director Ari Aster made a stunning — if ultimately uneven — debut with the creepy dysfunctional domestic drama “Hereditary.” Reportedly, he had formed the idea for “Midsommar” even before the first film, which he considered an allegory about family trauma. This one, he says, is his breakup movie.
And it’s a doozy. As “Midsommar” opens, a young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) is coping with an unfathomable loss, an emotional crisis that forces her to rely on her not-always-reliable boyfriend, a grad student named Christian (Jack Reynor). When Christian and his anthropology department buddies decide to take a trip to a tiny Swedish village to observe a rare midsummer ritual, they see it as a healthy separation; but soon enough, Christian is inviting Dani along, to the consternation of the bros and his own obvious ambivalence.
In many ways, “Midsommar” is also about trauma, in this case the tragedy that Dani is only partially processing as she first tags along on this long, strange trip, then becomes increasingly absorbed into the bizarre rites Christian and his buddies are there to observe. Things get off to a weird enough start when the group is offered psychedelic mushrooms upon arriving at their isolated, bucolic destination. Their blond-haired hosts, dressed in white linen and garlanded in beatific smiles, welcome them with equanimity that’s as disquieting as it is serene.
As “Midsommar” progresses, viewers might suspect that the entire movie is nothing but a protracted drug trip, as Dani, Christian and their peers realize that the groovy commune they’re visiting has a considerably darker side. As he did in “Hereditary,” Aster proves to be a master at establishing tension through atmosphere, using his own carefully constructed environment — in this case a verdant piece of countryside dotted with attractively rustic lodges, maypoles festooned with gorgeous flowers and mysterious runic symbols — as a queasily effective foil for the creeping terror at hand. If the Dakota was another character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” standing in for the cozy comforts of home that can turn malevolent with frightening suddenness, the gauzy beauty of “Midsommar’s” setting is just as pleasingly eye-catching a misdirect.
In fact, many of Aster’s themes recall that earlier film, which also dealt with male gaslighting, female distress and the trance-like powers of a cult. Like Toni Collette in “Hereditary,” Pugh delivers a raw, unfiltered performance as a woman fighting forces she only dimly understands; Reynor — along with William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter and Vilhelm Blomgren as his friends — all convincingly channel the humor, competition and tribal habits of dudes who aren’t exactly boys, but aren’t nearly grown-up enough to be men.
But, as was the case with Aster’s first film, “Midsommar” starts to collapse in on itself, as the filmmaker indulges arcane rules and fussy pageants of his own devising that seem increasingly arbitrary, not to mention deeply unsettling when his interest turns to gore and body horror. What might have been a chilling modern allegory about betrayal and mistrust instead blurs into something inert, fetishistic and hysterically pitched, with Aster more interested in manifesting his own elaborately sadistic visions than in homing in on genuine meaning. Only the most committed Aster-pologists are likely to enjoy “Midsommar” at its fullest; others, meanwhile, may admire its handsome visual design and bravura performances without completely buying in to the alternately diseased and fuzzy fable at its core. There’s no doubt that Aster is an artist of considerable gifts; the question is whether he’s an artist of ideas deeper than turning the smiles of a summer night into sinister rictus grins.
R. At area theaters. Contains disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual material, graphic nudity,
drug use and crude language. 140 minutes.