Ari Aster follows up his creepy and startling debut Hereditary with Midsommar; an ambitious, head-spinning horror that builds to a stocking finale, while supplying tension, tiered meanings and an immensely dedicated performance from Florence Pugh.
Dani( Florence Pugh) is a young woman who’s just experienced a gut-wrenching trauma. Her bipolar sister committed suicide via inhaling carbon monoxide and killing her parents as well. Broken by this, Dani turns to boyfriend Christian( Jack Reynor) , who is not exactly helpful and more interested in himself. Their relationship was precarious as it was and now Dani leans on him for support which he is unable to supply her with. A few months pass and Christian, who is studying anthropology for a PHD, is invited by his Swedish friend Pelle(Vilhelm Blomgren) to a festival in his Nordic homeland. He is to be joined by fellow students reasonable Josh( William Jackson Harper) and obnoxious Mark(Will Poulter). Dani finds out and Christians reluctantly asks her to come with them, to which she accepts. She’s still reeling from her trauma and suffering with depression and anxiety, but the trip sounds like a good getaway for her. Touching down in Sweden, they go back to nature among the wide fields and mountains that are populated by a commune. Dani and the others are soon witness to the ways in which they celebrate and their intriguing but slightly off kilter ways of ritual and worship. At first, the practices seem odd but just slightly different and nothing too serious. There’s dancing, ingestion of strange ingredients with hallucinogenic qualities and the fact that everyone does things in a group which while weird doesn’t really give the impression of anything dark or macabre. Yet with growing horror, events get ramped up and grisly horror ensues for the visitors, most of all fragile Dani. What started out as a sojourn to a festival with a difference slowly morphs into a waking nightmare for Dani as things just get more and more intense, impacting on her already tenuous mental state.
Ari Aster proves Hereditary was no fluke with this electrifying and bizarre blend of psychological folk horror and a meditation on trauma. He goes for the creeping approach, peppering in shocks and even snippets of humour at the start then slowly bubbling away at the uneasiness mounting like a fit to burst volcano. Grief seems to be a subject with which Ari Aster is familiar with and Midsommar continues in that vein but from a more surreal and grander scale. The most obvious comparison to Midsommar is The Wicker Man. Both films feature a community that’s pagan religion deviates from what is deemed traditional and most of the action takes place in sunlight. References can be seen and are well done( for me it’s a high comparison with a classic), but Midsommar is its own film with a hallucinogenic sensibility and layered drama. While very much a horror film, Midsommar functions as an exploration of reaction to trauma, purging the soul and toxic relationships. The last mentioned point on relationships is especially true as things continue to go downhill for Dani. The horror hits home more for that very reason and then some. I believe Midsommar is the type of movie that is rewarding upon watching again. Pockets of information are scattered often in plain sight but make more sense once the whole picture comes together with frightening force. You’ll be left thinking about the film no matter how you feel about it that’s for sure and certain.
On a visual level, Midsommar is an assault on the senses. From a flipped shot that goes upside down in arresting fashion to the houses the commune live in that are decorated with telling murals, you can’t escape the sensory overlord and beautiful cinematography. The use of wide shots and aerial shots captures the surrounding in majestic form, fleshing out the setting that is as breathtaking as it is unsettling. Bathing events in a mostly bright sheen, horror plays out against flora and fauna in a most peculiar way. The setting is alive, quite literally in some parts as you’ll no doubt be witness to if you venture out to see Midsommar. One of my favourite touches is Dani among the ladies dancing around in circles, adorned with a flower headdress. It’s a scene that overlaps images to a dazzling effect and perfectly sums up the unusual stance of this movie. It’s spellbinding even when outrageous and stomach churning festivities are taking place, making sure you never quite look away from what’s presented to your eyes.The use of sound is exemplary, from the unusual rhythms and punctuated noises to the eerie sense of silence and stillness. It compliments the atmosphere of something being very sinister and extremely horrifying to come.
At the heart of everything is the promising Florence Pugh. Over the last few years she has impressed me with her versatility and she doesn’t disappoint with her performance in Midsommar. She’s contained and crumbling under the burden of grief, constantly attempting to stifle her feelings. When it all comes out, Pugh nails the anguish and the sense of release, coupled with the slow and crushing sense of falling deeper into horror( or is it something else?) Her eyes are fascinating at profiling her internalised emotions that eventually reveal themselves with shocking intensity and surprising depth. Put simply, Florence Pugh impresses throughout with her surrender to challenging material. Jack Reynor nails it as the conceited boyfriend who gets put through his own horror and Reynor shines in the horrifying last act. Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter flesh out the other men of the movie who experience the terror unfolding, with Will Poulter the most memorable as the guy obsessed with getting sexy action and getting a lot more than he bargained for. As good as the guys are though, Midsommar belongs to the exceptional Florence Pugh who is for my money, going places.
Horrifying, hypnotic and hard to forget, Midsommar is one of the most unsettling films I’ve seen in a while. But like it’s predecessor, once you’ve viewed it, you can’t shake it. Ari Aster is shaping up to be a major league director and Florence Pugh is fast becoming a prominent and talented actress to watch.