Second Sight: Ari Aster's Midsommar & Letting Go

We've all been there.  The moment when you know it's over.  When your significant other looks at you in a way that instills fear, anger, and hopelessness.  Reckless decisions follow in an almost fugue state of survival instincts blended with base desire, revenge fantasies, and endless "what if" scenarios.  If the essence of this reality could be instilled with neo-pagan, broad daylight terror and bottled with a crystalized form of pitch-black humor, the result would be Ari Aster's sophomore effort, Midsommar.  Featuring enigmatic visuals, a harrowing central performance, and Aster's ominous attention to detail, this is one of the defining horror films of the century.  

Dani and Christian are on the rocks, when tragedy strikes, forcing their relationship to continue in a state of near death.  Christian invites Dani to travel with him and a trio of friends to a mysterious commune in Sweden where bizarre rites and unspeakable oaths threaten to undo Dani's fragile psyche permanently.  Patiently building upon a profane foundation of horror and comedy ancestors, Aster slowly creates an organic prison of despair around his principals.  Unhealthy relationships and messy break ups are whirlwinds of excess: anger, sex, resentment, pain, and hope congeal into a quagmire of self-doubt and loathing that some are never able to extricate themselves from.  This is mimicked in a searing allegory that plays out in a commune of cultist druids.  One of the most awe inducing aspects of the picture is in how meticulously researched it was.  There are mythological and occult trappings, dangerous iconography, and uncomfortable incantations strewn about under the context of Dani and Christian's disintegrating relationship as a means to simulate the stages of grief in real time. 

This is made by possible by yet another unforgettable performance by Florence Pugh.  Her anguish is palpable from the first frame and watching her devolution is a thing of horrific beauty.  In scene after scene, Pugh exposes herself to trauma, regroups, and then re-shatters, a remarkable simulation of mental illness and profound bereavement, two uncomfortable truths often ignored in the light of day, and yet they are inescapable in Aster's bright white open-air asylum for the wronged.  Jack Reynor gives an outstanding supporting turn as Dani's gaslighting boyfriend.  The genius of his portrayal is how close Reynor sticks to the middle, never fully going to villain or hero.  In the end, his Christian is simply a bad partner and it is this revelation that forces the viewer to confront their personal ethos upon the absolutely perfect finale.  

The most important character is the cult itself.  One of the most brilliant narrative decisions is in how the group is portrayed.  There are potent clues laced throughout the first act, both in dialogue and esoteric artwork, but the design is clear: Community, be it with others who have experienced trauma, close friends, or family are how one heals the scars of life.  The most powerful scene in the film involves mutual screaming, ritualizing the concept of a support group with disquieting results.  Pugh's physicality, particularly during the final act melds with these ideas, as her crucibles, both personal and present, collide in a haze of fire and acceptance.   This is the core of the story.  Healing is an agonizing process, filled with regret and heartbreak.  Coming through to the other side is not guaranteed, yet those who succeed find themselves tempered by their ordeal.  Forgiving one's self and letting go of resentment are salubrious miracles, hidden underneath oceans of grief.  

Pawel Pogorzelski's ethereal cinematography instills a sense of dread that builds throughout.  Early shots invoke German expressionism, with strange angles and deep shadows dominating the introduction to ensure the viewer knows something is amiss.  However, as the story transitions to nature, everything is dominated with wide, naturally lit shots and open spaces, reminding the viewer and the characters that there is nowhere to hide.  Everything is presented with astute production design, packing every frame with clues and riddles to solve.   This is a dense, slow burn thriller that is not easily defined.  It demands patience from its viewers, has startling conclusions, and features several laugh out loud segments, including a Tom Ford inspired climax that stays in the mind’s eye long after the credits have rolled.  Aster juxtaposes nudity and vulnerable with certain archetypes to reinforce notions of female empowerment and personal growth and the result is runic perfection.  

Now playing in theaters with a NC-17 director's cut on the way, Midsommar is another masterwork from one of the definitive horror directors of the century.  An absolute endurance test of weird, wondrous, and appalling visuals, this is an essential film in the genre.  While its influences are clear from the start, the journey is of import, with the final destination being something vastly different and unexpected: A story about walking away from the things that hurt us and the power of loving oneself.  

--Kyle Jonathan