Written and directed by Ari Aster.
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia, and Will Poulter.
A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
There are several paths that the director of an acclaimed debut can take for their follow-up feature; typically, they’ll either stick to what they know and make the same type of movie again, or venture off and do something totally different. There are other options, of course, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar is certainly a diversionary second movie beyond much compare.
Succeeding his barn-storming debut from last year, Hereditary, Midsommar sees Aster seeking out an experimental middle-ground of sorts, operating within a familiar thematic wheelhouse (to a point), though taking a quite distinct aesthetic and tonal approach to his new material.
Expectations are unavoidably high for Aster’s second effort, yet the film’s tricksy nature is such that Hereditary seems positively accessible by comparison. And so, there’s no guarantee that fans of Aster’s debut will vibe with what he serves up here, even if Midsommar is sure to find itself, quite appropriately, a cult of loyal cheerleaders.
The film opens with college student Dani (Florence Pugh) traumatised by a recent family tragedy, after which she decides to tag along with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on a trip to Sweden, where they will stay at an ancestral pagan commune with his three pals, one of whom is native to the commune. Needless to say, it isn’t long before The Weird overwhelms the group of young outsiders.
If Midsommar‘s devastating opening 15 minutes implies a certain shared DNA with Hereditary, similarly propelled forward by upsetting events which place our protagonist in a vulnerable state, the superficial similarities quickly evaporate thereafter.
Beyond suffusing typical-ish horror elements with a brand of wrenching human drama the genre is so rarely known for, Midsommar is a far, free-wheeling cry from what Aster gave us last time. For starters, the horror elements themselves are an extremely slow creep, and as may be a relief to those thoroughly shook by Hereditary, this is actually a frequently hilarious film. Aster perceptively mines the awkwardness of Dani and Christian’s stilted interactions, given that Christian only invited Dani on the trip out of pity, not to forget the sheer incredulity of Christian’s friends.
Aster prioritises immersing audiences in the singular Swedish setting above everything else, and though the ominous tenor is certainly there from early on, it doesn’t fully announce itself until a fair way through the meaty 147-minute run-time.
This may sideswipe those expecting a slightly more tried-and-true narrative, but it’s simply one of the many ways in which Aster refuses to rest on his laurels and repeat himself. It certainly results in a film that isn’t as immediately upsetting as Hereditary; though the brilliant Florence Pugh gets an early allowance to howl in agony just as Toni Collette did last year, Hereditary‘s slow-burn build up to that surprising first act shocker is extremely tough to replicate.
And honestly, it feels like Aster isn’t even trying to do that; the instigating incident in Midsommar is certainly horrific, yet it serves more as a contextual framing device for Dani’s journey throughout the film, whereas in Hereditary that moment had a more direct causal impact on the terrible events that followed.
To say that Midsommar isn’t as visceral as that movie or that it’s not exactly a film filled with surprising plot twists is perhaps to miss the point somewhat. Aster has crafted a slow-burn horror-drama with an atmosphere as intoxicating as any of the suspect substances our interlopers imbibe over the course of their time at the commune.
Comparisons to The Wicker Man are both unavoidable and well-earned; Midsommar similarly takes place almost entirely during the day, is focused on a cult’s increasingly unsettling and violent behaviours, and focuses on an outsider – or in this case, outsiders – who are wildly in over their heads against them. And while it’s arguable that Aster perhaps tips his hat a little too eagerly towards Robin Hardy’s masterful 1973 horror at times, this film’s additional hour allows it to branch out in ways both unexpected and brutally unsettling.
The less said about the particulars of that the better, yet as with Hereditary, it’s easy to expound upon the most vital element of all; the human. Anyone who’s seen Florence Pugh in a movie lately knows she’s going places, and just as Toni Collette delivered one of the most startlingly rattled, beguilingly honest performances in any movie about the supernatural ever made, so too does Pugh bring an uncommon gravitas to a film that could easily have descended into wanton silliness.
Pugh, who is absolutely Oscar-worthy in her role here, is also joined by a remarkable ensemble cast. Jack Reynor makes Christian a decidedly more layered and interesting character than most other takes on this material surely would allow, giving his strongest performance since his sublime turn in 2012’s drama What Richard Did. Will Poulter also brings most of the early laughs in the film’s preamble phase, cracking wise about the beauty of Swedish women and enduring the most hysterically spot-on drug freak-out this side of real life.
If Aster’s writing lacks the exactitude of his first film, that feels somewhat intentional, allowing a less-restrained vessel through which to share his vision, and one brought to the screen with a mind-boggling level of skill given the mere $8 million budget. Making a horror film set entirely in the day-time is understandably thought by many to be a madman’s task, and yet, Aster’s fierce control of the camera makes it seem so easy.
Aided by the astonishing lensing of his returning DP Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster makes a horror film that allows its stately appearance to belie a slow-revealing ugliness, complimented by Lucian Johnston’s pin-sharp editing, The Haxan Cloak’s droning musical score and some of the most impressively dynamic sound mixing heard in any film this year, horror or not.
All things considered, Midsommar won’t be a hasty recommendation to many; it’s quietly terrifying but lacks even a single jump scare, it’s horribly gory yet also slow and long, and wilfully dispenses with many of the typical filmmaking comforts and safety nets audiences will expect. But if you’re game for a challenging, gorgeous and brilliantly acted horror that pushes boundaries in all kinds of directions, it is an absolute must-see.
Ari Aster pulls no punches with this mighty sophomore effort, which trades the operatic power of his debut for a looser yet more ambitious form.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.