Following a major family tragedy, Danni (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) travel with friends to Sweden to attend a remote commune’s mid-summer festival. However, the idyllic, healing retreat bathed in permanent sunlight quickly devolves into a series of increasingly violent and bizarre rituals undertaken by a pagan cult.
Director and screenwriter Ari Aster destroyed the idea of surviving grief in his dread-wracked debut, Hereditary. His follow up, while expanding outside of a claustrophobic, dollhouse-like setting, dishes out a similar haunting. We feel just as isolated, and just as stomach-sick in Midsommar.
The parallels between the two narratives are striking. In both of Aster’s works, we are entrapped by protagonists searching for belonging when faced with all-consuming loss. The lead characters in both films are confronted by ritualistic cults who can help them get past their grief. And in the two movies we see that ‘family’ must be destroyed for one to survive. Aster has even said Midsommar is closer to a break-up drama than a horror – the setting in the isolated Swedish hills is merely an interesting canvas for layer upon layer of symbolism for a domestic life crumbling in the unceasing sun.
Even if the Scandinavian setting is just window dressing, Aster does an excellent job in filling every flower, wall mural, and ritual with rich meaning. Aster spent months researching Viking traditions, making some of the village customs (and killings) uniquely unsettling when you consider the social morals behind them. Further, the world built in Midsommar is dense despite its simple, naturalistic setting. The community’s history and pageantry are carved and painted onto every surface, which, along with Aster’s clever camerawork, disorients viewers throughout. Each mural raises tension; we know they could be clues as to what happens, but how, where, and to whom? This attention to detail makes the film feel authentic to the point of caricature. And then we begin to feel as disorientated and uneasy as the unsuspecting lead characters.
The script is intriguing and tightly woven, and it doesn’t drag despite its near 140-minute run time. Aster succeeds in setting viewers on edge even before we arrive in Sweden by highlighting Danni’s spiral of intense grief, and he maintains that edge with opaque dialogue and disturbing sequences aplenty. Packing most of the character building into the first 30 minutes was risky, but we get enough to understand Danni and Christian’s relationship and see the supporting characters (Christian’s d-bag friends) horror trope traits. Even though these stock qualities are blatant, Aster leans on them for comic relief and to move the plot along, leaving the complex character development to Pugh and Reynor.
Pugh is sensational as protagonist Danni. Multiple layers of grief, insecurity, and frustration are all channelled by Pugh in a single expression, and we see from the outset that Danni’s toxic relationship is Midsommar’s true horror. Reynor is also excellent as the emotionally stunted Christian. He is the mask of calm control to Danni’s inner turmoil – although we never truly learn what drives him, we see his relationships are driven by cerebral manipulation, rather than true feeling. It’s a wonderful contrast, and the two leads work off each other with a balance of subtlety and brute opposition.
Aster leaves his best (and most unnerving) filmmaking to his camerawork. With characters taking liberal amounts of hallucinogens throughout Midsommar, Aster literally distorts the world with unfocused movements and pulse points. We struggle to focus on the background and the villagers throughout, leaving you (choose one) feeling motion sick and tense about what you aren’t seeing. The dark, usually a horror film’s greatest asset for scares, isn’t needed – not being able to focus in broad daylight becomes more terrifying, and this is Aster’s crowning achievement in a horror masterpiece.
Aster’s second film is just as tension-inducing as his debut, crushing your spirit under droning folk music and distorted camera work. Truly effective horror. 8/10.