Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is the first movie I’ve seen all year that feels like it was made by a real filmmaker, an artist who has carefully designed each shot, collaborated in full with every cast member and has a true vision he reaches with every scene. It’s that good. While the promotional materials are pushing this as a horror film “from the Director of Hereditary,” the result is an oddity that fits outside the summer movie box and, to say the least, will leave wildly varying impressions on each audience member.

Although they’ve been dating for years, Christian (played by Jack Reynor) has been unable to break up with Dani (played by Florence Pugh), his forthcoming but unstable girlfriend.  Dani’s recent family tragedy makes his belated plan to split with her seem especially ill-timed. Christian’s college roommates are tired of her demanding presence and visibly horrified when he invites her to join them on a most unusual summer getaway: a visit to a vast, isolated community in Sweden, run by the cheerful extended family of Christian’s college buddy. Immediately upon their arrival, very bad things begin to happen, though the group of Americans are assured it’s all a part of the weekend activities, which resemble “pageantry.” Dani wonders how much of what she sees  is real or if her grief and bubbling emotions are driving her to the edge.

It’s clear from the very start where this is all going, even if you haven’t seen “The Wicker Man” (either version)  an obvious influence on this. There are also visuals and even set designs that appear influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain,” though the nods to Swedish cinema (note a main character named” Ingemar”) are especially notable; so much of Swedish cinema, particularly the films of Ingmar Bergman, are about familial suffering, the community created by living with siblings and the tortured existence of watching one another grow and die. So much of this is in “Midsommar,” which, despite a large Swedish cast and the setting, was made in Hungary.

There is clearly something so shady and two-faced about Christian’s Swedish college chum who invites the group to his bizarre childhood home of communal living and ancient customs. Yet, rather than note how obvious the danger is (the characters on screen certainly don’t), we’re meant to just go with it and take in each scene and savor the experience. This is ideal, as the remarkable cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is immersive and arresting, always finding a way to bring us closer to the action (sometimes, closer than we’d prefer to be). While “Midsommar” is a muscular and effective shocker, its less scary than psychologically rich and troubling, which is preferable to being just a series of “jump scares.”

All of the cast members give what is needed to convey this escalating madness and bring a stark reality to their characters, though Pugh (whose character I wasn’t always rooting for) is especially strong. Aster’s “Hereditary” put him on the map a summer ago but this is a much stronger, far more distinct work.

The use of space, painted murals and reflections to note the character’s current and eventual location is clever and touches of fiendish dark humor (most of which are courtesy of scene stealer Will Poulter) are welcome.

By the film’s end, I wasn’t convinced that Aster made every point he intended to make or that every character was given a proper conclusion. If anything, the outrageous final moments reflect the film’s views on inevitability but provide more of a sudden narrative stop than a satisfying finish. What this has to say about the way American view foreigners (as well as the agony of withstanding a rotten breakup) is up for interpretation, though there is much to discuss in the lobby afterwards. Or not- on the film’s opening night, I heard a report of a massive walkout during an especially challenging scene.

While it may be best appreciated down the road as a cult movie and too out of step to be released alongside Spider-Man, “Midsommar” is most ideal for the big screen and a group of adventurous filmgoers. Its among the best films I’ve seen this year and a hypnotic experience. I can’t wait to see it again, though I’ve postponed my next trip to Sweden indefinitely.

Four Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly