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UNDER THE INFLUENCE: “Midsommar,” directed by Ari Aster

Ari Aster has not only proven himself to be a great director of horror (as he did so expertly in his 2018 feature debut “Hereditary”) but a great filmmaker as he takes his new film, “Midsommar” to the level of Art.

According to Aster, a very bad breakup led to the creation of this spine-chilling nightmare, one made even more frightening due to the fact that it all takes place under the bright light of the sun. Our director gives us nowhere to hide from the terrors that arise, and arise they do.

After a family tragedy, Dani (an excellent Florence Pugh) tags along to a beautiful and remote area of Sweden with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his three fellow anthropology student friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who was born and raised in the area known as Hälsingland. The group are arriving during a nine-day solstice festival that only happens every ninety years.

The locals who inhabit the commune appear friendly and warm as they welcome these outsiders to their home during this historic ceremony. Everything has the look and feel of a Swedish Renaissance festival of sorts and the visiting Americans, in their gray shirts and modern jeans and sneakers, consistently stand out in this sea of white and bright yellow sunshine.

We discover the customs of this secret world alongside our main characters and we must pay very close attention to it all. Every painting and drawing holds a foreshadowing that will come to pass and every nuanced routine cloaks something much more macabre.

Aster allows Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera to take its time and immerse us into the world the filmmakers have created. Pogorzelski’s work along with Bobby Krlic’s creepy and refreshingly old-fashioned score bathes the film in a tangible atmosphere that refuses to let up. The audience is not allowed one single moment of reprieve. From the minute the film opens (with Dani receiving cryptic messages from her sister) we are fully aware of something sinister at play.

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One of the many great things about “Midsommar” is how the screenplay allows for character development as it examines Dani and Christian’s relationship, concluding it has more than run its course. Christian is too scared to end it with Dani, as her emotional state is much too fragile. Dani senses this and it affects how she sees her boyfriend, life, and the world around her.

The character of Dani is completely fascinating. She is completely destroyed by family tragedy and the knowledge that her boyfriend wants out. We see her hit bottom emotionally but later, at the commune, her strength is slowly reborn as Dani hits retribution and emotional catharsis that will see her embracing a new fate.

The comparisons to Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” are inevitable and Aster does tip his hat to the 1973 cult classic in a few scenes, but “Midsommar” is its own entity. The film creates a unique world yet one not too far from our own. The commune is idyllic and its inhabitants heartwarming. Only our knowledge of horror films helps us understand that this is far from the reality.

Aster doesn’t rely on the tired jump-scare trope—happily, there isn’t a single one, in fact. As director he doesn’t want us out of our seats, but, rather, frozen to them, as in, unable to move. This is a film that overflows with fear and dread and frozen we do stay, from the opening moments until the finale credits roll. The terrifying atmosphere the filmmakers have created is utterly riveting.

“Midsommar” is a stunning production that harkens back to the European styles of the late sixties and early seventies experimental filmmaking. In this striking work I see shades of Polanski, Tarkovsky, and a little Kubrick. Yet this film is not one long homage. Ari Aster has proven himself a true artist with only two films, and this is his best work. Artistically, he has risen to a new level and now takes his place as one of the finest filmmakers working today. “Midsommar” isn’t only one of the best films of 2019 but it’s also one of the greatest horror films of the last two decades. It is a pure and original artistic triumph. I hope The Academy will be paying attention to it come Oscar season.

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