A brilliant Florence Pugh survives breakups and Scandinavian pagans in Ari Aster’s second feature
In many ways, Midsommar feels like a twin to writer-director Ari Aster’s last film, Hereditary. Both films tackle raw themes of grief and emotional guilt, and Aster divines horror from his characters’ internal turmoil as much as he does from the external terrors lurking around them. Midsommar, though, trades the looming darkness of Hereditary for blinding sunlight — and likewise trades the former film’s claustrophobic, emotionally-withdrawn family ties for a villainous village whose defining virtue is unnerving honesty and empathy.
With no shadows to hide his scares, it’s astounding that Aster manages to make Midsommar as visceral of an experience as Hereditary — at times, even more so than his last film. Aster delights in putting Midsommar’s horrific sights on full display, treating them with a banality that’s as striking as it is familiar. As a result, the sun-lit insanity elevates over two-and-a-half hours to incendiary heights. With Midsommar, Ari Aster expands upon the themes of Hereditary to create a beautiful descent into madness rich with surprising emotional maturity.
In the wake of unimaginable loss, Dani (Florence Pugh) fights to keep her floundering relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) alive; Dani’s grief, however, obligingly binds Christian to Dani just as he seeks a much-dreaded breakup with her. When Dani finds out about his upcoming plans to visit Sweden, Christian impulsively invites her along, hoping to somehow resolve things along the way. Joining Dani and Christian are party boy Josh (Will Poulter) and wide-eyed bookworm Mark (William Jackson Harper), who steer clear of Dani and Christian’s drama by indulging in the historical and sensual pleasures of the Swedish countryside. Their guide, exchange student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), leads the group to their destination–a Midsommar festival in Pelle’s village of Hälsingland. The village’s beauty, however, hides deadly secrets — and as the festivities rage on, everyone comes to realize just what role they’re meant to play in the villagers’ ancient rites.
Midsommar’s premise may feel familiar to fans of folk horror films like The Wicker Man and Kill List, even Hostel — but as in Hereditary, Aster possesses an intuitive knack for recognizing and subverting his audience’s expectations. Rather than dive immediately into the horrors we’re all anticipating, Aster draws out his film’s first half with scenes that wallow in the repressed emotions of his characters. Pugh and Reynor excel at bringing Dani and Christian’s dying relationship to life — they step on each other’s words and nail the small physical micro-aggressions that come with constantly second-guessing themselves and their partners. In an opening phone call, Dani fails to get Christian to reassure her about a family crisis, fighting back tears as much as she tries to keep things light and airy. It’s an incredible display of Florence Pugh’s range as an actress, which is grippingly explored in painful depth over Midsommar’s runtime.
Aster’s equally dedicated to investing us in the world of Midsommar’s Hälsingland, capturing the breathtaking detail of Henrik Svensson and Andrea Flesch’s impressive art direction and costume design. From the film’s opening medieval tapestry, to the walls of the village’s communal sleeping quarters, to the wildflower-festooned garb of the May Queen, Midsommar’s pastoral setting feels authentic and lived in — a technique that instills a sense of unending touristic curiosity in the audience.
The welcoming openness of the Hårgas villagers proves equally seductive for each of the characters in myriad ways. Mark, who’s writing a thesis on midsummer rituals, is excited to be the first to document their way of life. Josh, ever the stereotypical American frat boy, chases every opportunity to get laid. For Dani and Christian, however, the Hårgas’ emotional availability reminds them at each turn of the honesty their relationship desperately lacks. As a result, a wedge is further driven between the couple as their group gets increasingly drawn into the village’s bizarre Midsommar ceremonies. Rather than an outright horror film, Midsommar instead positions itself as a film about the horrors of empathy. With the emotional tension constantly ratcheting up between his central couple (to the hilarious exasperation of their friends), Aster’s film feels like a horror movie long before anything horrific even happens.
And, boy, does it happen.
In many respects, Midsommar ups the gory ante compared to Hereditary. There’s just as much love for gruesome practical effects, and I’m all for Aster’s continued exploration into just how many ways he can inflict trauma to people’s heads. But like Hereditary, Aster isn’t content with what’s “expected” to be horrific; nor does it contain the usual scares that one would expect from folk horror. Instead, most of Midsommar’s dread and anxiety comes from the sheer banality of its evil. The protagonists act as a sounding board for much of the film’s shocking sights, which play effectively against how much the Hårgas welcome and accept them. The horror here feels so achingly normal, with mutilations and brutalizations treated as much of an anthropological curiosity as everything depicted in Midsommar’s first half, reminiscent of recent period “non-horror” horror movies like Silence or Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse.
Aster also externalizes his characters’ inner anxieties through clever, subtle uses of VFX as different ingested psychotropics take hold of them. Trees breathe, flowers undulate and contract, and eyes change colors in sequences that increasingly blur the line between nightmare and reality. It’s a technique that burrows deep under one’s skin, and the film’s lengthy runtime only serves to delightfully prolong the suffering of both Aster’s characters and audience.
Unfortunately, there are points where Midsommar feels just as twinned with Hereditary’s faults as it is with its successes. While much of the film’s first half is beautifully shot and revels in the tensions it creates between the characters, I couldn’t help but feel like the film’s few subplots were more obligatory than necessary. A thread about Christian and Mark’s academic rivalry is cut short before we’re fully invested in it, and Josh’s attempts to take advantage of Hårga women feels a bit too telegraphed to be either scary or funny. Another storyline involving a British couple that parallels Dani and Christian is also (understandably) underdeveloped — one can’t help but feel like they’re just more bodies to be added to the pile. Each of these subplots give the sense that while Aster delights in building up suspense, he can’t deny he shares his audience’s impatience to get to where Midsommar is inevitably headed. What’s more, this constant knowledge that things will eventually go sour sometimes bleeds Midsommar of the subversion that made Hereditary so terrifyingly unpredictable.
And while I’ve tried to keep this review relatively spoiler-free, there is a character in Midsommar (shown in the film’s marketing materials) that feels like a major misstep on Aster’s part. It’s understandable why Midsommar would use a character trope like Ruben — similar characters appear in films like Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and provide an easy (if ethically dubious) visual shock. But using a developmentally-disabled character as one of the sources of Midsommar’s horror feels almost antithetical, if not a betrayal, to the kind of anxiety and dread Aster sets up and employs through the rest of the film.
What’s most effective and terrifying about the Hårgas is how rational and well-thought-out their world is, that their traditions feel as rooted in logic as they are in unshakable faith. Including a character like Ruben doesn’t just feel like a throwback to now-questionable ideas of what audiences may find horrifying, it also robs Midsommar of how refreshingly normal and banal the Hårgas’ evil actions feel. There comes a much more evocative moment of how fallible the Hårgas’ beliefs might be in the film’s climax, one that doesn’t require Ruben at all to effectively communicate Aster’s ideas. It’s understandable that the audience needs to be repulsed by the Hårgas’ beliefs — but it’s reductive and unnecessary for that to be at the cost of further otherizing people with different physical/mental abilities.
Make no mistake, though — in spite of its shortcomings, Midsommar is a deliriously good movie, one whose journey is hilarious and harrowing in equal measure. A riveting scene finds Dani screaming with a throng of Hårga women, their cries eventually mirroring and matching each other in an electrifyingly cathartic bond. It’s one of Midsommar’s rare moments of connection and intimacy, one that best exemplifies how seductive belief can be in times of crisis, and the emotional and physical tolls we’re willing to take in order to feel like we belong — be it to our ancestors, our loved ones, or our gods. As its characters either succumb to or wholeheartedly accept the insanity that erupts by the film’s climax, Midsommar reveals itself as a film that recognizes that horror exists along a wholly diverse spectrum — and dares us to confront that it may only take nine days (or two-and-a-half hours) to embrace the same horrors we initially rejected.
Midsommar opens in theaters July 3, 2019.