Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh in Midsommar (Photo: A24)

★★★ (out of four)
STARS Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

With just two features under his belt, writer-director Ari Aster has made it perfectly clear what sorts of films are likely to continue emanating from his feverish brain. In short, if you want someone to helm your frothy rom-com starring Channing Tatum and Anna Kendrick, Ari’s probably not your man. Yet even the horrors of his debut feature Hereditary probably couldn’t adequately prepare anyone for the terrors of Midsommar, a motion picture so bleak that it makes the auteur’s earlier film seem almost as cheerful and lighthearted as Mamma Mia! by comparison.

Aster is clearly a student of cinematic and literary history, and while Hereditary brought to mind various classics spanning the decades, Midsommar is even more specific as it draws almost exclusively from the 1970s. It primarily appears to be inspired by both Tom Tryon’s excellent 1973 novel Harvest House (later turned into a 1978 TV miniseries starring Bette Davis) and Robin Hardy’s chilling 1973 film version of The Wicker Man. Those are lofty achievements to target, and if Aster’s movie eventually falls short, it’s still a notable achievement distinguished by staggering visuals and a superlative lead performance.

Florence Pugh, who already made a sizable impression essaying the leading roles in 2017’s Lady Macbeth and this past spring’s Fighting with My Family, bags another remarkable turn as Dani, who suffers through an unspeakable tragedy even before the opening credits have finished making their obligatory appearance. Dispirited and vulnerable, she seeks solace in the arms of Christian (Jack Reynor), her boyfriend of the past four years. Christian offers only clumsy comfort, partly because he had been considering breaking up with Dani and partly because he’s a self-centered clod who prefers hanging out with his friends. They would be the obnoxious Mark (Will Poulter), the serious Josh (William Jackson Harper), and the soft-spoken Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).

It’s Pelle who suggests that his buddies accompany him back to his small Swedish hometown to witness a festival that occurs only once every 90 years. Christian invites Dani to come with them, never dreaming she would actually accept the offer. But she does, meaning that she and the lads are soon off to a rural area in the province of Hälsingland. Upon arrival, everything seems pleasant enough, as the locals engage in benign pagan rituals centered around flowers, dances, and dinners. But matters take a dark turn once the ättestupa (Google at your own Spoiler risk) hits the fan, and from there, it’s pretty much doom and gloom for some of the unsuspecting visitors.

Like Hereditary, Midsommar is a thematically rich picture, with more taking place than initially meets the eye. There’s real sport in noting all the artwork that covers the village and realizing that many of the depictions will be played out later in the film, and characters who are initially seen only fleetingly (such as a deformed boy) soon grow in prominence as the story unfolds. Even if one chooses to ignore the deepest, darkest implications that seem frighteningly topical — all-white leaders and their deplorable followers engaging in evil acts against foreigners under the false guises of religion, security, and protection of an outmoded way of life? Nah, couldn’t happen here in the US of A! — there is still enough to gnaw on, from the evolution of Dani’s fragile state of mind to the various definitions of “family.”

Unfortunately, whereas Hereditary stubbed its toe during a hurried and harried finale, one in which Toni Collette’s character of Annie Graham was demoted from fascinating heroine to expendable extra, Midsommar likewise takes a few missteps as it heads toward its denouement. The obliviousness of the outsiders eventually becomes as risible as those of the eventual victims found in Friday the 13th-style slasher flicks, and, even given Dani’s trauma, the specifics of the narrative make it hard to swallow certain aspects of her character arc. Like Collette’s Annie, she becomes the sideshow rather than the main attraction, and while it’s not as incongruous here as in Hereditary, it still results in the film losing its center.

Still, Midsommar clearly succeeds in its utmost desire to disturb. If nothing else, it’s the perfect counterprogramming selection for those who don’t mind interrupting their sunny summer with a feel-bad bummer.

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