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Film review: 'Midsommar'

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Emotions are the real horror in Ari Aster's films. With his first feature "Hereditary," the writer-director put a grief-stricken family through a brutal wringer of guilt, depression, resentment, hostility, and rage. We watched as their trauma was laid out with such intensity that by the time actual supernatural forces started to rear their heads, it felt like a relief compared to what had come before.

Now with his even more ambitious sophomore film "Midsommar," the human emotions once again are what make its story truly scary. Aster uses the context of horror to explore grief, depression, and the detrimental effect of toxic relationships. And for good measure, Swedish pagan solstice rituals. Before the blood even starts flowing, there's already an atmosphere so suffocating that we only get a moment to breathe once the bloody deaths start piling up. I'm thankful Aster makes horror movies, because a straight drama from him might be too devastating for me to handle.

The film's long prologue introduces us to Dani (the wonderful Florence Pugh) who's in a long-term romantic relationship with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). He's been checked out for a while, tired of what he feels is her emotional neediness and constant worries about her family.

Christian's friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (a hilarious Will Poulter) have been actively trying to convince him to pull the trigger and break up with her already. But then Dani experiences an unspeakable tragedy -- something no one should ever have to go through -- and dammit he can't very well leave her now.

Not long after, Dani finds out he's been planning a month-long trip to Sweden with his friends that he's neglected to tell her about. Christian -- along with Josh and Mark -- will be joining their classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to attend a nine-day celebration of the summer solstice in Hårga, the rural Swedish village where Pelle grew up. Taking place once every 90 years, the festival promises to make for an unforgettable trip.

Guilted into extending Dani an obligatory invitation, Christian doesn't expect her to accept. She knows full well he's no longer invested in their relationship, and his friends look at her as a burden. But Dani's still coming to terms with a tremendous loss, and she isn't up to coping on her own, so she sticks it out and agrees to go. Who knows? Maybe the trip will be a chance at a fresh start.

Eventually they arrive in Hårga, and the group attempts to acclimate themselves to the midnight sun while ingesting an inadvisable amount of hallucinogens. All the while Aster's script nails -- to squirm-inducing effect -- the discomfiting feeling of being someplace you're clearly not wanted.

Once the festivities get under way, it's no spoiler to say things go from beautiful to horrifying as the film makes its operatic descent into full-on freakout. Aster indulges in what have already become his characteristic preoccupations, from the processing of grief to devilishly friendly cultists. And anyone squeamish about graphic head trauma would be well-advised to move along, and quickly.

The filmmaker once again demonstrates an excellent way with actors, and the entire ensemble is fantastic. An open and expressive performer, Pugh is immensely sympathetic and we can't help but feel for Dani. Reynor, for his part, deserves credit for playing a massive dick like Christian and making him feel like a real person. He's not a monster, just the absolute goddamn worst. The early scenes between the two are cutting and uncomfortable and true in all the best ways.

The film's devastating domestic drama clashes with an absolutely bonkers climax, and while "Midsommar" swings big with its ending it works better here than in "Hereditary" thanks to the dark sense of humor that's woven through the entire film. I laughed pretty consistently throughout -- and that's entirely by design. The comedy makes it easier to accept when things really get nuts, helping to make some of the more ridiculous elements a bit more palatable.

As a filmmaker, Aster can be showy, but his shots always have a purpose, working to put us in the headspace of his characters. The film also boasts the kind of production design that makes you want to go back for a second viewing just to drink in all the little details of the bucolic pageantry. And the subtle digital effects throughout have a wonderfully unnerving impact.

Aster has namechecked Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" as an influence alongside more traditional folk horror like "The Wicker Man," and his film is equal parts relationship drama and horror film. For all the grisly images we see, it's moments of emotional violence that have most stuck with me. At its heart, "Midsommar" is a story about the danger of clinging to a relationship past its expiration date. In many ways it's the ultimate breakup movie; to get the full effect, watch it with an ex you can't stand.