Written and directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, & William Jackson Harper
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Let the festivities begin.
Ari Aster immediately established himself as a bold talent with Hereditary, a downright oppressive exploration of grief, trauma, and familial anxieties. Few genre efforts in recent memory felt as singular as that film’s potent mix of genuine tension, suffocating despair, and horrific shocks. Simply put, Hereditary is a film that weighs on you. For his follow-up, Aster has gone in a slightly different direction. By no means am I implying that Midsommar is a lighthearted romp into the Swedish countryside, but it’s a bit more playful than its predecessor. After zigging into some familiar territory, Aster slowly zags away, practically daring his audience to giggle with every crooked step he takes in documenting a break-up from hell. Folks in budding or rocky relationships considering this as a date movie should beware: Midsommar gleefully savages the folly of couples who desperately and naively cling to the idea that changing scenery can pave over turmoil, especially when it involves a commune of menacing Swedes.
The first third of the film feels very much like a spiritual successor to Hereditary, as Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) deals with cryptic, ominous emails from her suicidal, bi-polar sister. It’s put a strain on her relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), who’s all but checked out of the relationship anyway. As she frets on the phone to her friend, worried that she’s leaning on Christian for too much emotional support, he’s taking shit from his friends about how needy she is. However, when Dani’s suspicions about her sister are tragically confirmed, Christian sticks around out of obligation, putting their already rocky relationship firmly on eggshells.
The two practically talk around each other, so much so that Dani is surprised to hear that Christian has planned to take a trip to Sweden with his grad school buddies. Once again feeling obligated, he invites her to tag along with the expectation that she’ll decline; instead, she accepts the invite and immediately becomes the fifth wheel on the trip. She does her best to go along with a bizarre itinerary that includes taking mushrooms and attending a 9-day festival at a commune where one of Christian’s buddies grew up. It’s almost too idyllic, of course, because these things always involve ritual sacrifice.
Midsommar isn’t a meta-fictional deconstruction of this well-worn trope, but there’s the faint sense that Aster knows that you know what’s up. You’ve probably seen The Wicker Man (perhaps even both versions), so he leans heavily into the expectations early and often by teasing subtly strange shit around the margins. Ominous structures loom in the distance, while the locals insist that certain buildings are off-limits. They’re especially cagey about the details surrounding their rituals, and they’d ask you kindly ignore the bear on the premises. They unsettle their guests with leering, knowing glances, almost like they’re no letting them in on the joke. At one point, the Americans wander past an ominous tapestry that seems to foreshadow the entire story, meaning the story’s predictability is basically woven into the film’s fabric.
Just as he did in Hereditary, Aster dwells on the inherent tension of the situation without rushing to spill anything, be it details or blood. Midsommar lingers with long pauses and awkward silences, creating the impression of unease in broad daylight. The festivities unfold as the summer solstice produces nearly perpetual sunlight, resulting in an otherworldly, sunlit twilight zone where days blend together into a murky haze. Most of the proceedings occur outdoors in a suffocatingly isolated clearing, surrounded by an imposing forest and smothered in a middle-of-nowhere desolation. This claustrophobia and alienation crucially carve a path for the more explicit shocks, like a grotesque, deformed child and violent outbursts that evoke the primal, sun-soaked savagery of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
It comes as no surprise that Midsommar is meticulously crafted, almost rigidly so: there’s a sense that Aster won’t leave so much as a hair out of place with his precise framing, deliberate camera movements, and lingering, measured shots. Likewise, the pacing adheres to expectations, as Aster stretches his legs and gradually peppers in more overtly disturbing imagery on the path to a more frenzied, delirious climax. Only some of this imagery really qualifies as traditionally “scary”; most of it is just downright weird and naturally flourishes out of the sheer alienation of the setting.
Once Dani leaves for Sweden, she also leaves behind any semblance of comprehension: even though she faces an unfathomable tragedy back home, it’s at least clinically diagnosed and can be addressed with medication. In Sweden, both she and the audience are thrown into the deep end, left to plunge headlong into the madness. Midsommar becomes the sort of film where every innocuous development invites suspicion, whether it’s a wayward glance, a bizarre ritual, or ethereal chanting. When you’ve somehow warped Sweden into a nightmarish fantasia of chanting, dancing, and fucking, you’ve accomplished something.
Maybe that’s why it’s so surprising that Aster eventually channels this uneasiness into nervous laughter: in many ways, Midsommar has a slasher movie sensibility in the way it broadcasts just how disposable most of its cast is. Christian and his group of friends are typically boorish Americans, arriving with literal dick-wagging confidence and little respect for what they’re observing. Mark (Will Poulter) is only in it for the drugs and sex, while Josh (William Jackson Harper) crosses boundaries while researching for his thesis. Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which insists its events are all the more tragic because its victims are young, Midsommar almost invites you to delight in the doom awaiting most of its characters, who have cluelessly walked right into the middle of a horror movie without heeding the slightest hint of it. It’s naturally funny every time they gleefully take drugs, drink a suspicious, strange brew, or wander off with girls who are eager to “show” them something.
Likewise, you can’t help but chuckle at an awkward exchange when a couple attempts to leave after witnessing one particularly horrific ritual (let’s just say that Aster seems to despise heads the way Fulci disdained eyeballs). Connie (Ellora Torchia) is all packed and ready to go, only to learn from a village elder that her fiancé (Archie Madekwe) has left without her because the truck only fits two people and that she’ll have to wait for the driver to return. Incredulous, she insists that she could have sat in her fiancé’s lap. “We don’t break traffic laws,” the elder deadpans, leaving Connie standing awkwardly when she should be running for the goddamn hills. It’s the last we hear from her, save for an off-camera scream later on that causes some suspicion among he friends. They ask about her whereabouts but are assured she safely left the village with her fiancé. Seemingly satisfied with this, most of them go about having a merry time; meanwhile, viewers are just waiting to see where their corpses will turn up.
Midsommar continues to unfold in this wry fashion, as Aster paints these dopes as deserving victims of a surely horrific fate. He’s obviously mocking the notion of the arrogant intruder, specifically uncouth, patronizing Americans who laugh at everything without realizing they’re actually the butt of the joke. A lot of Midsommar intrigue hinges on waiting for the hammer to fall on these dolts, especially Christian. Because if Aster has it out for anyone, it’s bad boyfriends who don’t have the courage to either break off a relationship or work through some issues.
Christian might be sympathetic during his first few scenes, when it seems like he’s just going the right thing by providing support to a girlfriend going through some heavy shit. However, as the film rolls along, it becomes more clear that she’s a burden to him. His concern slowly melts into a sort of condescending lilt that hits his voice every time he interacts with her on the trip. It’s obvious he doesn’t really want her there, and even his attempts to comfort her come off as patronizing.
Reynor is sharp in a difficult role: it’d be easy to go big and broad with such a scummy role, but he plays it subtly. Like so many “nice guys,” he comes across as a gaslighting dirtbag barely wearing human skin. Aster leaves no doubt in the script, as Christian’s behavior becomes increasingly dickish towards both Dani and a fellow student when he intrudes on the latter’s research. Gratuitous grad school drama never felt so crucial in establishing just how much a character absolutely sucks. You go from hoping Christian gets it first to hoping Aster has reserved the worst, most horrific climactic death imaginable for him.
That leaves Dani to act as the de facto focus of the narrative, if not the audience’s only hope at finding something like an empathetic center for such a strange, sordid tale. Pugh shoulders this task admirably; in several instances, she bares her raw soul in expressing Dani’s profound grief with an unnerving, guttural wailing. Perhaps even more impressive are the quieter moments that reveal how that grief clings to her, even months later. One particularly sharp scene captures her in a desperate moment of panic as she heads into an apartment bathroom, only for Aster to seamlessly cut to an airplane lavatory. Pugh’s distant, disconnected expression is likewise seamless. It’s simply something she carries with her, no matter what type of good show she tries to put on to please Christian and his friends.
In this respect, Midsommar almost looks to follow in the footsteps of Hereditary by observing the fallout of grief and trauma. However, Aster takes a different route in this outing, one that’s decidedly more playful and weirdly triumphant. Like the other characters, Dani is oblivious, albeit in a different sort of way: just as they can’t see these Swedes are about to make them part of the festivities, Dani is unable to see Christian for the prick that he is. Unlike the others, she does slowly begin to grasp this during a final act that also dovetails with her understanding of the bizarre customs she’s become, well, accustomed to in her journey towards accepting the loss of her family and her relationship. In a clever reversal of genre expectations, our protagonist finds both catharsis and meaning in the strange rituals her peers can only gawk at with slack-jawed amusement.
It’s here that Aster finally weaves the big, gory, disturbing, and inevitable spectacle through Dani’s own realization about her relationship. I was reminded of that funny Adam Sandler travel agent skit from earlier this year, which insists “if you’re depressed at home, chances are you’ll be that way” when you travel. Midsommar more or less agrees with this sentiment: if your relationship is set to combust at home, chances are it’s going to combust abroad, too.
A wild, delirious climax sees this form of couples therapy out to its logical extreme: it turns out that maybe taking off to another country can salvage at least one person in the relationship. The other, however, is left at the mercy of impregnation rituals, bear suits, and burning huts, a fate that ends up being much funnier than it sounds. All of those pent-up, nervous chuckles are free to bellow into uproarious laughter the minute one character says, “I believe I ate one of her pubic hairs” with a completely straight face. I hope nobody tripped over themselves in a rush to declare Midsommar “elevated horror” because I genuinely believe it’s a comedy, right down to the way it answers questions about where those missing corpses are.
Granted, it’s an extremely fucked-up comedy that isn’t exactly easy to like. It’s bleak in a different manner from Hereditary, which had some uncomfortable laughs itself. Midsommar, however, is a different, black-hearted beast with a positively morbid mean streak that’s in the service of a wicked punchline. I’m not sure how I feel about it: my immediate reaction was to sort of recoil in bemusement since it seems kind of like an elaborate game of drunken karaoke. Aster’s doing familiar folk horror with a devilish, crooked smile, which is disorienting at first blush. The sheer length and exquisite craftmanship of the film gives the impression of a profundity that seems to deserve better than mere provocation. You almost expect Midsommar to be about more than what it is, making it easy to dismiss as a twisted lark, or “Wizard of Oz for perverts,” as Aster himself put it.
After sleeping on it, though, I’ve already come around to appreciating its audacity: what it lacks in tonal and thematic coherence, Midsommar makes up for with fiendish cleverness. It’s exactly what you expect and not what you expect all at once, and it firmly cements Aster as an absolute master of pure, freak-out horror. His films might not beg to be enjoyed in any traditional sense, but they're unshakable, sort of like especially weird, fleeting dreams that your mind wanders back towards throughout the day in search of some primal meaning that remains elusive.
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