It’s hard to believe Midsommar is director Ari Aster’s second feature, a title so imbued with undeniable craft and talent that one would hardly believe that it is a sophomore effort. After last year’s Hereditary, Aster returns to his exploration of loss and grief, but this time around – rather than a splintering family – he looks at the decline of a relationship, which is framed around a Swedish festival that turns predictably horrific.
The film opens with a shocking tragedy, one that leaves Florence Pugh’s Dani in a decidedly vulnerable state, making it difficult for her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), to end their troubled relationship. Months later, in an attempt to keep her happy, or perhaps through sheer guilt, he invites her to join him and his three friends on a trip to a remote village in Hälsingland to partake in their summer festival, an event that only occurs once every 90 years.
Having already been gutted by its opening sequence, we’re taken through Aster’s inverted cinematography takes us through the winding country roads, aided by Bobby Krlic’s ominous score, ensuring that this is going to be a journey that we’re never going to feel completely comfortable taking.
In addition to Christian and Dani, the group consists of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a native of the community and the one who informed them of the festival; Josh (William Jackson Harper), a budding anthropologist who is looking to use the festival the basis for his thesis; and Mark (Will Poulter), a loud-mouthed, vape-loving party guy who’s just looking for a hookup. For as much emphasis that was placed on the narrative, these characters are by and large relegated to the “standard American douche aboard” trope we’ve seen time and again in horror cinema. Still, they were entertaining and served their purpose, hardly detracting from the overall experience.
Midsommar is slow-burn folk horror at its finest, with Aster constantly raising the tension before backing it off again, then slapping you in the face just when you thought you were safe. It’s bathed in the sun, drenched in color and yet exudes an ever-present aura of discomfort. It’s at times a hallucinatory nightmare and at others a deeply disturbing yet incredibly effective rumination on love and loss. The film isn’t devoid of humor either, frequently causing bouts of uncomfortable chortling in my screening.
Propelling the emotional weight of the film is Pugh’s performance, that, like Toni Collette’s in Hereditary, is a tour de force and worthy of all the accolades she will surely receive; this can’t be underscored enough…she’s fantastic. Dani’s trauma puts her a hair’s breadth away from a panic attack at all times, and although Christian feigns support, she knows it’s no longer genuine.
The nine-day festival begins innocently enough, with feasting and music and merriment, but things take a dark turn very shortly thereafter. Though shocked at the ritual, the tourists attempt to rationalize it as cultural differences. The fictional religion of Hårga is steeped in European folklore, but each day of the ceremony seems to bring with it fresh terrors that creep under our skin, never allowing the tension to subside.
Aster ups the ante from Hereditary, delivering a sprawling, nearly two-and-a-half-hour descent into chaos that, like his previous film, ends with a blood-curdling denouement that leads to the inevitable, completely unforgettable conclusion. His command of the lens is nearly preternatural in his ability to evoke such dread in the audience that, even after leaving the screening, I felt its effects and imagine that it will linger for some time.
Beautiful, devastating and thoroughly unpleasant, Midsommar is destined to become a horror classic, one that we discuss and break apart for years to come. Ari Aster has cemented himself as a must-see director and, in only two feature films, proved himself as a master of horror storytelling.