Movie Review: Wrestling with Swedish cultists in “Midsommar”

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“Midsommar,” the latest horror experiment by Ari Aster, the director of “Hereditary,” is a disturbing, patience-testing, rule-bending and frustrating film, one more to be contended with than passively enjoyed.

And that appears to be the point. It’s about passivity.

It’s a cult tale of the “Wicker Man” school, in which those set up to be victims take no active role in their fates.

Very anti-Hollywood, almost un-American in that regard. “American Exceptionalism” in the movies often takes that tack. We don’t take things lying down, we tell ourselves.

Characters’ “special skills,” foreshadowed with care, don’t have a bearing on how they cope with what’s coming.

We and they trust Scandinavian strangers. What harm could come from the country that gave us “ABBA?” They observe at what we think is a dispassionate remove, that isn’t removed at all. That horror trope that characters’ flaws — addictions, narcissism, cruelty, etc. — ensure they “get what they deserve” are almost upended. Unless you believe we all get what we have coming to us in the end.

Dani (Florence Pugh) is the neediest girlfriend ever. We meet her on a wintry night as she’s frantically calling and texting everybody she knows.

She’s in a panic over a cryptic, menacing email from her sister. Long-suffering boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) talks her off the ledge with another “It’s just her trying to get attention” that is almost helpful. He seems well-meaning, then we hear him griping to his friends. Dani and her family dramas are maddening.

But Dani’s intuition is spot on. She loses her entire family that night. In “Midsommar’s” most wrenching scene, Pugh shows us the gulping, gasping, inconsolable grief of the truly crushed.

Months later, guilt-ridden Christian still hasn’t found an exit strategy for this years-long co-dependent relationship. He’s planned on joining his fellow anthropology doctoral student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and their partying pal Mark (Will Poulter) at Swedish student Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) primitivist Swedish commune.

Christian didn’t want to tell Dani. Dani winds up guilting him into coming along.

At Hälsingland, the inhabitants live, work and worship together, a religion they document in ancient runes and base on ancient traditions of humans and Earth in harmony.

And when the four Americans and two young Brits arrive as guests, they’re given magic mushrooms, which only Dani resists taking.

Don’t get your hopes up, because it’s just for a minute. Peer pressure is a dangerous thing.

There are signs things are a bit off there — the oddly (sexually, violently) graphic embroidered sheets, the many drugged snuffs, teas, etc. they partake in, the games they play when they’re not line dancing.

“Skinning the fool.”

Josh, the expert on these sorts of shared cultural rituals worldwide, seems clued in on what’s going on and what’s to come, but is only here to smugly, self-servingly observe, not intervene.

Christian is out of his anthropological league, as are the rest.

What follows is predictable, but still by turns quaint, bizarre and shocking. And the reactions, “It’s just a tradition/cultural thing” are straight out of apologia for everything from Islamic stonings and beheadings to Inuit seal pup head bashing and Whoopi Goldberg’s infamous defense of footballer Michael Vick’s brutish dog-fighting ring.

“It’s their culture!”

The passivity of one and all is more gullibility than drug related. If they don’t have their suspicions, they should. The events to come are just so far outside what their upbringing, culture and stereotypical view of Swedes are that their instincts don’t work.

That human/American opiate that such tales traffic in, “There’s always hope” and the view “I/We could never fall for THAT” or “take THAT lying down” is missing. We’re all exceptional. Except, we aren’t.

Yeah, this could be about Trump. And Brexit. And crimes against humanity, what people will quickly start to regard as “normal” and what tolerating the intolerable will get you.

Poulter (of “The Revenent”) provides the sole comic relief, though some of what we’re shown has a certain head-slapping laugh at grim surprise quality.

Aster’s film, not unlike “Hereditary,” has a pitiless quality that keeps it at arm’s length. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” is his ethos.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, but “Midsommar” did what the Midnight Sun does to anybody who first experiences it. It kept me up all night.

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MPAA Rating: R (graphic violence, nudity, hallucinogens, profanity)

Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill and Will Poulter

Credits: Written and directed by Ari Aster. An A24 release.

Running time: 2:20

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