There’s something of a precedent to this kind of movie, and not just in the oft-referenced The Wicker Man. It’s about strangers in a strange land who venture somewhere where the people are similar enough to us but observe some strange cultural ritual or way of life (The Ritual, Apostle).
The protagonist/victims figure it’s just a matter of proud tradition and a bit of harmless fun but the nasty/bloody/supernatural elements behind it turn out to be completely true, and when the heroes realise as much they’re trapped.
Ari Aster’s follow up to his breakout smash Hereditary takes that framework and amps up the character quotient by building in themes of grief and PTSD. We meet Dani (Florence Pugh) in a bit of a panic. She can’t raise her parents or her bipolar sister, and in her worry she leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). We see Christian on the other end of the phone talking her down, and then listneing to his friends cajole him about breaking it off with her – it’s obvious he doesn’t want to be in the relationship anymore.
But Dani’s fears are realised. In a brutal sequence, her sister has attached a garden hose to the family car’s exhaust and duct taped the other end into her mouth, venting it into their parents bedroom to kill them too. Just when Christian is ready to end things with Dani she calls him again, incoherent and screaming in floods of tears when she’s learned what’s happened.
Six months later and with Christian obviously having not had the heart to break it off they’re still together, Dani still as emotionally fragile as ever and with Christian feeling suffocated (the tension in the room whenever they talk is thick). He springs on her that he’s planned a trip to a remote part of Sweden with his college buddies to observe a traditional pagan festival they want to study, all of them hoping against hope Dani understands and lets him go.
Instead, she tags along, so her and Christian, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and frat boy-ish Mark (Will Poulter) arrive in lush countryside with fraught nerves and more baggage than just their backpacks.
For the first few days everything seems idyllic at the festival run by local townspeople. Even though the off-the-grid commune they live on is unusual and certainly has creepy potential (communal, gender/divided sleeping areas, the small enclosure everyone but senior members of the community is forbidden to enter, etc), the people couldn’t be more welcoming. The festivities include ritual feasts, blessings upon the land and even some consciousness-altering substances to help everyone relax.
When things turn, it’s not with subtle cracks that show through the sunny facade but a sledgehammer. Two elderly residents raise toasts over lunch, are carried to the top of high cliffs and casually step off to brutal deaths on the rocks below.
Somehow the other inhabitants talk Dani, Christian and the other blow ins down from their horror at such brutality, promising it’s what the pair wanted, it’s an ancient and longstanding tradition, etc., and it’s a testament to Aster’s script that it presents plausible reasons for them to not run screaming.
But, having established a very creepy mood, things turn gradually more sinister. Another couple the guys have befriended, freaked out at the continued goings on, eventually decides to leave, but the young lady is distrustful when they tell her her boyfriend has already left without her. The obnoxious Mark enrages the residents by peeing on a sacred tree, so a young woman he’s had his eye on leads him away, never to be seen again.
Josh, who’s doing his degree thesis on the cult and its ways, sneaks into the forbidden temple to photograph an ancient text but is attacked. Another young woman who apparently has designs on Christian attempts to place some love spell on him. And all the while, Dani’s fragile emotional state crumbles even more.
It comes to a head in a maypole dancing sequence, all the young women of the village (including Dani) dancing around a giant pole covered in flowers. The last one standing is destined to be some kind of ceremonial village leader, although by then you’re sure it means something bloodthirsty and evil.
Unfortunately, as soon as the dancing sequence ends, it falls completely apart, feeling like Aster just didn’t know where to go after it. The proceedings from then on make little sense, the story meanders and it actually gets a bit boring.
Aster is on the back foot already for owing such a glaring debt to The Wicker Man but when it goes off the rails, it becomes obvious he either didn’t come up with clear rules and structures for all the rituals and goings-on – just wanting to come up with stuff that was creepy no matter how much sense it made – or he just didn’t consider it an important element in the story.
You’re watching a horror movie, so you know bad stuff’s going to happen, but knowing where it was going with a bit more direction (albeit subtlely) after the second act turn would have made it more effective.
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