Synopsis: In the wake of a horrific tragedy, college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) accompanies her good-for-nothing boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends to visit a midsummer celebration at their Swedish friend’s commune. Bad things happen.
1. Uh …
2. Ok let’s start that again. With his previous film, Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster proved himself to be a stunning new voice in the horror genre. Rarely is a debut as intricately crafted and artistically challenging as 98% of Hereditary (2018). With his follow-up, Midsommar, Aster once again proves that he has the eye of a European formalist and the soul of an exploitation filmmaker, combining his impressive technical chops with an almost-perverse desire to unsettle by any means necessary to tell an allegorical tale of a woman dealing with her grief and a prolonged breakup. Midsommar‘s highs never quite approach the dizzyingly bonkers peaks of Hereditary, but it is also a more consistent film, and one that will certainly get under the skin of even the most seasoned fright fan.
3. If there is one horror element Aster understands, it is dread. Much of Midsommar appears to have been constructed based around a sick dare – let’s see how much dread I can wring out of the most bucolic of settings! After an American-set prologue (which might very well be the best ten minutes of film this entire year) centred around the usual horror milieu – dark shadows, dim lighting, obscured vision – the film fiendishly pivots to the exact opposite of a horror movie environment. Who could possibly be scared of neverending sunshine, flower-strewn meadows, and beaming Swedish villagers? Aster sets himself a high bar to clear and largely achieves it by leveraging the setting for its horror potential. As it turns out, extreme gore, weird cult rituals and body horror can be even more stomach churning when it happens in broad daylight. Once the film gets going (which admittedly takes a while), it becomes a non-stop parade of WTFery that is enhanced by the sunshine, flowers, and smiling Swedes.
4. My biggest issue with Hereditary is its damp squib of an ending, which prematurely halts the escalating insanity and replaces it with, no joke, Aunt Lydia monologuing exposition about everything that has taken place before. Thankfully, Midsommar sticks its landing, largely by (i) focusing it on Dani’s character arc instead of the inner machinations of the Swedish cult and (ii) heavily foreshadowing everything that will happen in the plot, to the extent where there is no need to explain any of the plot events because the audience has already figured out where this story is going to go. It’s rare that I can say that the predictability of a film is one of its finest assets, but in a movie like Midsommar that is more about the experience than the story, it’s surprisingly refreshing to watch a movie that allows (even encourages) the viewer to ignore the plot in order to focus on everything else.
5. And what a lot of everything else there is. The performances are all good, with Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper doing the best they can in small roles (asshole and Chidi respectively). Jack Reynor gives a lovely, subtle performance, bringing forth Christian’s shittiness without ever falling into obvious ‘bad movie boyfriend’ tropes. But the film belongs to relative newcomer Florence Pugh, whose performance can only be described as volcanic. Even before tragedy strikes, Dani is a raw nerve, throbbing with neuroticism and barely concealed anxiety. Aster has a gift for staging scenes of unadulterated grief, and like Toni Collette (in Hereditary) before her, Pugh more than rises to the occasion, wailing to the extent that it seems simultaneously inhuman and extremely human. After the first ten minutes, it becomes a question of when, not if, Dani will succumb to her grief, and Pugh plays both the agony of repression and the ecstasy of release to total perfection. It is not as astounding a performance as Collette’s (who was given a more rounded character to play, giving her portrayal more dimensions), but it is undoubtedly one of the best of the year, and a hell of an entrance onto the world stage.
6. Oh yes, the most ‘holy shit I can’t believe this works’ aspect of Midsommar? The comedy. Aster has complete tonal control over his movie, and has very deliberately crafted Midsommar into a perverse sort of comedy. There are three key elements of comedy here – the subtle cringe comedy of the collapsing relationship between Dani and Christian, the fish-out-of-water comedy of the Americans in an alien environment, and finally (and most boldly of all), the sheer farce that the cult’s ‘festivities’ descends into by the end of the film. Rare is the film that skillfully combines horror and comedy, rarer still is the film constructed to evoke both in equal measure from similar subject matter. Most horror-comedies lurch from one to the other in zombie-like fashion, but Midsommar is much too clever for that. No, this is that odd beast that will make you wince at an image onscreen before chuckling at the exact same image. The film understands that going out-there out-there can be both terrifying and funny, which is pretty much the only way I can describe the shot of Dani sitting in what can only be described as a smock of flowers with a frowny face.
7. With Hereditary and Midsommar, Ari Aster has established himself as an emerging titan of the horror genre*, with an auteurist obessions of using the occult to tell allegorical stories of trauma and repression. His formal chops are beyond reproach (every shot in Midsommar lasts exactly as long as it needs to be, which is sadly uncommon), and his ability to truly burrow under the skin of a viewer is impeccable. Midsommar, with its uncanny fusion of freak-folk-festivity and truly shocking imagery, is the type of film that draws you deeper and deeper into its spell until it has hooked itself deep into your subconscious. You will never look at flower-crowned blondes dancing in a field the same way ever again. Happy Midsommar.
* By far and away the most promising genre in terms of developing talent. In the recent years we have had Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, Jennifer Kent, David Robert Mitchell, Trey Edward Shultz and Jeremy Saulnier. Hell of a field right now.