Horror/thriller Midsommar provides 'moments of nail-biting perfection'

Florence Pugh as Dani and Jack Reynor as Christian in Midsommar
Damon Smith

MIDSOMMAR (18, 147 mins) Horror/Thriller/Romance. Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Gunnel Fred. Director: Ari Aster.

A BEGINNING, a middle and an end. Great storytelling demands mastery of all three elements.

Writer-director Ari Aster came close with his debut feature, Hereditary, a silent scream of sustained tension starring Toni Collette, which only faltered in a hoary and preposterous final act.

The same fate befalls his eagerly awaited follow-up, Midsommar, which sends chills and beads of sweat down our spines for two tantalising hours, then takes its final, choking gasps with a hypnotic and psychedelic fever dream that is in equal parts silly and shocking.

There are similarities between the two pictures: both are gore-slathered meditations on bereavement and pent-up rage, anchored by an emotionally raw central performance.

Aster repeats directorial flourishes (shooting the world upside down) and elemental motifs, and he delights in close-ups of the human body in states of hellish disrepair, exposing shattered bones and glistening entrails with the clinical detachment of a surgeon.

There are moments of nail-biting perfection as the writer-director conjures terror in broad daylight in a similar vein to The Wicker Man, intimating that we should all be wary of the kindness of strangers - especially those with freshly picked wildflowers braided in their flaxen hair.

Before the gorgeous sunshine and butchery, though, there are blankets of snow over American suburbia.

Christian (Jack Reynor) is poised to break up with his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) when she suffers a devastating loss.

Rather than twist the knife, Christian invites grief-stricken Dani to join him and pals Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on a summertime trip to a commune in Halsingland where Pelle grew up.

After a long flight and a four-hour drive into the Swedish countryside, the friends emerge into a forest clearing dotted with large wooden structures and white-robed figures tending the land.

"We're stopping in Waco before we go to Pelle's village?" quips one of the gang.

Soon after, matriarch elder Siv (Gunnel Fred) opens the great feast, which takes place every 90 years, heralding nine days of painful self-reflection that the outsiders will never forget.

Midsommar is a relentlessly creepy journey of self-discovery, which plays mind games as characters fail to heed warnings: a bright yellow pyramidic temple ("Nobody's allowed in there"), a disfigured soothsayer ("All of our oracles are direct products of inbreeding"), a Shakespearean bear and lurid frescoes depicting ritualistic practices.

Aster steadily frays nerves with directorial brio and an immersive soundscape of ambient effects and choral chants, underpinned by a discordant electronic score composed by The Haxan Cloak.

Oxford-born actor Pugh tethers our unwavering sympathy to her grief-scarred heroine and her fearless performance papers over some of the tiny cracks in the script.

After almost two-and-a-half hours of wide eyes, wincing and whitened knuckles, we certainly don't wish we were here.

Rating: 8/10

Released: July 5

Review by Damon Smith

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