Midsommar | Ari Aster | July 3, 2019
With his astonishing debut Hereditary last year, director Ari Aster stunned us all with his take on coping with grief and how it has a ripple effect that impacts you and consequently all those around you. Just one year later, Aster has returned with his sophomore film Midsommar, another meditation on how one handles grief, but this time instead of dwelling in a dark world of horrors, Aster presents a world of horrors in broad daylight in a seemingly happy and idealistic small community in Sweden that unfolds like a fucked up fairy tale gone completely wrong.
Aster begins the film in a tone that does resemble the feel of Hereditary where we first meet Dani (Florence Pugh) as she scrambles to decrypt a mysterious message she receives about her family. She tries to turn to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but their relationship is rocky at best, as he is considering finally breaking up with her but can’t bring himself to do it. Dani then receives some devastating news that leaves her completely alone in the world and is desperate for the level of empathy and understanding that a good boyfriend should provide, but Christian only remains there because he fears of what breaking up with her now could do.
So when Dani finds out that Christian has planned a trip to Sweden with his fellow anthropology Ph.D. friends Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Pelle (Villhelm Blomgren), she’s shocked to learn that he is already going and hadn’t even told her with the departure only weeks away. Feeling guilty, he invites Dani along for the ride for their trip to the small, seemingly idyllic little Swedish community of Hårga, where Pelle grew up. Christian, Mark, and Josh are eager to learn about the traditions of the nine-day midsummer celebration and also have a bit of a bro weekend, which becomes stifled with the inclusion of Dani, who is still understandably reeling from the unfathomable tragedy she is enduring.
At first, they enjoy the scenic atmosphere while they trip out on various drugs, but the longer they stay, the stranger things get. Aster knows that you know what is going down, but it’s the journey and the way it unfolds along with the themes that are packed into its narrative that allow Midsommar to truly shine. Stretched out to nearly 2 1/2-hours, Aster takes his time letting the atmosphere unfold, giving you plenty of time to get to know the characters and try to settle into the community with them before he pulls the rug right from under you and all hell breaks loose. This isn’t the heart-pounding mix of dread and horror that he provided so masterfully in Hereditary, but rather a psychedelic folk-horror tale that slowly reveals itself and lets the shocking and trippy moments unfold.
On the surface, it seems like a hardcore break-up movie, but Aster also expertly weaves in ideas about what it truly means to grieve properly, and the stunting effects it may have on someone to be surrounded by people who make your emotion and pain feel like a burden, rather than helping one through it. Themes about what family really means and finding acceptance in a world that some would find unethical or unruly come into play. But underneath all the sunny color-graded madness and demented horrors, there is something to say about what it means to really allow your emotions to be heard and more importantly, felt, and how a family can come in the unlikeliest of places.
Each moment builds upon the twisted and shocking one that came before. Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (who also shot Hereditary) showcase every moment with a delicately thought-out plan, with every frame and camera moment playing to a specific effect and executed to an awe-inspiring level of perfection. The way that it all unfolds in sunny daylight with such a pleasant aesthetic provides a different sort of creepy factor that feels more earned that the traditional dark shadowy jump scare that we are so accustomed to. Equally crucial is the sound design, with the score from Bobby Krlic (aka The Haxan Cloak); just as crucial is the way that Aster integrates silence, letting all the horror play out in a jarring naturalistic fashion that is disturbingly grounded in reality, despite the heightened chaos that unfolds around our characters.
There’s no doubt that this will be an even more polarizing ride than Hereditary, with the disturbing images and an often surprising amount of comedy that provides a juxtaposition that many audience members likely won’t know how to feel about. It doesn’t judge any of the Swedish folk members and never paints anyone as a black and white evil villain. In some ways, many of our American “good guys” are actually their own worst enemies stepping over cultural boundaries and not exhibiting the same emotional empathy and understanding that Dani so desperately needs.
The film features a stunning leading turn from Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Fighting With My Family) who expertly portrays someone dealing with trauma that is not even allowed to grieve as needed. She plays the role of someone quietly in agonizing pain equally well as when all hell breaks loose and she’s sent to the other end of the spectrum. Jack Reynor is equally good as Christian, a man-child who is too afraid to really make a concrete decision to save his life (and in this case, he needs to). Poulter has found a new niche in playing hateable douchebags, and Jackson Harper and Blomgren are good in their roles as characters whose true motivations come into play as the film unravels.
With fine attention to detail and a level of patience that some will find too languid and drawn out, I welcome Aster’s slow-burn patient nature and didn’t notice the runtime one bit. While some elements of the movie work better than others, Midsommar left me in a trippy trance-like state that was unshakable and left me pondering all it had to say and the lasting impression that is both shocking, disturbing, yet impressionistic and beautiful at the very same time.