It’s best to enter “Midsommar,” director Ari Aster’s sunlit yet creepy follow-up to his dark and creepy “Hereditary,” knowing as much as the young Americans at its center do about the mysterious events they are about to witness. That is, not much.
The prologue establishes Aster as a master of dread-filled atmosphere. It starts with the anxiety-ridden Dani (Florence Pugh) desperately trying to reach her disturbed sister, who sent an ominous email suggesting she may end her life. While Dani’s at home, her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is at a bar with his buddies, confiding to his boorish buddy Mark (Will Poulter) that he’s thinking about breaking up with Dani.
Then comes a horrible, and horrific, set piece that rattles Dani to her core — and puts off any discussion of a break-up. And that’s before Aster reveals the movie’s title. (Some of these early scenes were shot in Utah, where Aster shot “Hereditary.”)
Cut forward a few months, and a still-fragile Dani hears Christian and his grad-school pals talking about a summer trip to Sweden — with their pal Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) acting as tour guide to his home village in the country’s far north. Dani invites herself along, which annoys Mark, who was counting on a guys-only week of Scandinavian debauchery.
The group — Dani, Christian, Mark, Pelle and Josh (William Jackson Harper), who studies ancient European rituals — arrives at the village of Harga, where they are welcomed with smiles, hugs and tea made with hallucinogenic mushrooms. That turns out to be one of the least strange things these Americans witness during what they’re told is a nine-day festival held once every 90 years.
Aster, who wrote and directed, reveals the strangeness slowly, carefully, with great deliberation. Hints are released bit by bit, as Aster ratchets the fear minute by minute. Aster doesn’t traffic in jump-scares or quick tricks, preferring to lure viewers in with the morbidly alluring “Wicker Man”-like scenario and then hooking the audience with the bizarre and dread-filled atmosphere.
What’s more is that Aster does this in broad daylight, so close to the Arctic Circle. Aster uses the whites and floral colors of Harga to build tension and a sense of doom the way John Carpenter used shadows and darkness, a photo-negative of terror that surprises at every turn.
Pugh goes beyond scream-queen expectations as Dani, as her vulnerability turns into a type of armor, her personal pain transmuted to a dance of death. It’s proof, alongside the wrestling comedy “Fighting With My Family” earlier this year, that Pugh is one of the most dynamic and fascinating young actors working today.
As with “Hereditary,” “Midsommar” will leave some people scratching their heads, particularly with an ending that is as weird as it is terrifying. Those who pick up on Aster’s wavelength will be rewarded with a psychological thriller that disturbs the soul like no other.
Opens Wednesday, July 3, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language. Running time: 140 minutes.