Part of what made Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster’s debut, one of 2018’s best films was the malignant grief at its core. The movie was about the psychic burdens we pass on through our lineage — a message that made the horrific climax both inevitable and tragic. Midsommar is a typically ambitious and messy sophomore effort that, at almost 2 ½ hours, can’t quite convey everything on its mind: loss, trauma, relationships, community, religion, mental illness and much, much more. Despite a plot that feels thin next to Hereditary, Midsommar is weirder and denser. It’s the kind of unwieldy horror film that rarely gets made these days and another opportunity for Aster to flex his considerable skills as a director.
Storywise, Midsommar begins in a place even bleaker than Hereditary. Dani (Florence Pugh) is still reeling from an unthinkable family tragedy when her long-term beau, Christian (Jack Reynor), casually informs her he’ll be traveling to rural Sweden for a month to attend a mid-summer festival. The invitation comes courtesy of his Swedish grad-school friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), whose family puts on the annual festival, and promises him and his accompanying buddies (Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper) possibilities of hallucinogens and casual sex as they work on their thesis.
Straying from the family dynamic that anchored Aster’s first feature, Midsommar is first and foremost about shitty boyfriends. Christian has clearly lost the will to put forth any effort into his relationship with Dani, who has long been struggling with mental illness judging by her nervous body language and the Ativan in her medicine cabinet. The terse dialogue between the couple during the film’s early stretch is as unsettling as anything in the final two acts, as Dani is desperate for her suffering to be heard and Christian is just looking for an escape route. Using long, deliberate pans from cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and an exquisitely ominous score from electronic producer the Haxan Cloak, Aster knows how to drag audiences right down into the same pit of despair as his characters.
Given the creeping dread of the first act, it’s no surprise something sinister is afoot at this Swedish festival, but Midsommar takes its time getting there, immersing the characters and viewers in the festival’s upbeat atmosphere with locals adorned in white robes. The bright, pastel-colored aesthetic is used masterfully, with the camera’s slight overexposure lending everything a surreal, otherworldly quality. And that’s before the group starts drinking mushroom tea.
Call it benevolent horror — the commune members’ cheery dispositions, along with the idyllic setting, adds to the sense of unease. Of course, when the bloodshed eventually happens, it’s presented with the most disturbing imagery you’ll see in a multiplex all year. Aster again uses smash cuts to superb effect, and corpses are framed with such grotesque imagination they almost feel like a part of the set design (you’ll know it when you see it). Midsommar may not be as terrifying as Hereditary — it’s too dreamlike and languid by comparison — but it will no doubt leave just as memorable a scar.
Midsommar’s pastoral setting has frequently been compared to the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man, particularly the pagan occultism at the forefront of both films. However, this film’s meticulously designed sets — angular barns whose roofs touch the ground, a mysterious and bright-yellow pyramid, and creepy tapestries hinting at vague rituals — bring to mind Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) in their stunning attention to detail. There’s no underselling Pogorzelski’s patient camerawork and the recurring symbols imbued into nearly every shot. It’s layered enough to send Reddit message boards in a tizzy for a long time to come.
Though certain characters’ fates seem sealed the moment they enter this Swedish commune, the primary focus remains on Florence Pugh’s Dani. A few years after her breakout performance in Lady Macbeth, Pugh is equally remarkable here. Her character’s world has been upended by tragedy, not to mention she’s in the midst of a crumbling, toxic relationship. She is a woman who’s emotionally lost, and whether or not she is capable of finding closure is what the movie hopes to answer. Pugh’s performance communicates deep inner-turmoil while putting on an affable front around her peers.
I imagine much of the criticism aimed towards Midsommar will revolve around its 140-minute runtime, and that’s not necessarily without warrant. This is a horror film whose reach undoubtedly exceeds its grasp at times, and the second act meanders into several odd detours while nevertheless maintaining the movie’s hypnotic tone. However, that meandering comes at a price: The conclusion of Dani’s arc doesn’t answer all the questions Aster poses about grief and trauma. Still, as a break-up movie, this is an all-timer, and Christian and Dani’s relationship goes to some … unique places by story’s end.
When we’re currently getting our 712th film set in the Conjuring universe, I have no problem overlooking moments when Aster’s ambition occasionally gets the best of him — especially if it means I get to luxuriate in his impeccable command of dread once more. But even if Aster gives up the genre after this, I’d happily follow him anywhere. Besides maybe Jordan Peele, there’s absolutely no one working in horror today with this much formal skill.