I have a complicated relationship with Hereditary, last year’s surprise horror hit and feature film debut of writer-director Ari Aster. On the one hand, I considered it my most disappointing, overhyped movie of 2018 but on the other, it stayed with me. If only Hereditary hadn’t transformed from a sinister, raw and superbly-acted exploration of family grief and guilt into overblown possession nonsense in the last twenty minutes or so. After carefully playing its cards for so long, everything was thrown on the table, and it was a mess.
Aster’s follow-up Midsommar doesn’t make the same mistake. Steadily paced and tonally consistent, the film leads the viewer through its bizarre and beautiful world, which flips conventional horror locales on their head.
The film centres on a group of young Americans who are invited by their Swedish classmate and friend to a special traditional mid-summer festival at his home, a commune in a remote northern part of Sweden. The friends jump at the opportunity for different reasons but they’re also resentful that Christian (Jack Reynor) has brought along his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh).
Christian has wanted to jettison the relationship for a while due to Dani’s emotional baggage, but after Dani suffers a tragedy, he guiltily invites the broken young woman along. Cue their arrival in an idyllic pastoral setting filled with blonde, cheerful Scandinavians in white robes, and where folk music, flower picking and outdoor feasts are the order of the day. Oh, and this all takes place under a disorientating near 24 hours of sunlight.
There’s no need for an injection of the supernatural into Midsommar. It’s already so otherworldly – a weird contemporary fairy tale. It’s also trippy as all hell. Built into the story as part of the festivities, characters imbibe natural hallucinogenics. However, unlike those horror films that slather on heavy-handed nightmare visuals until a final patch of clarity right at the end, Midsommar sticks to a credible route throughout. With continual subtle use of CGI, trees pulse as if alive, flowers open and close, and for an eye-blink, faces appear in a wall of forest. The film is probably the most accurate depiction of a ‘shroom trip ever depicted. At the same time, though, the most shocking moments occur when characters are stone-cold sober.
Midsommar honestly won’t be for everyone. Fans of slick, jump-scare horror may be alienated by the film’s artiness in appearance and ambitions, as well as its leisurely pacing – Aster could honestly have shaved 15 minutes off its 2-and-a-half hour running time. With its mounting sense of unease, overall quiet and domestic focus, Midsommar sits better among titles like Hereditary, mother! and Antichrist. Maybe Get Out too.
The difference is, Midsommar doesn’t tangle itself up in obtuseness like most of those other films. Everything that happens has a clear explanation, when the commune’s leaders step forward to enlighten the slack-jawed, occasionally queasy outsiders about the significance of their ancient cultural traditions. The film also has a surprising amount of humour to vent the ramping tension. Characters’ response to the bizarreness reflects that of the audience, encouraging you to laugh at the surrealness, but not in an illusion-shattering “What a crock” kind of way.
Then there’s the fact that Midsommar is enjoyably thematically dense. You might want to focus in on the fates of the disrespectful-acting Americans: rude, vape-smoking Mark (Will Poulter) or intellectual Josh (William Jackson Harper) who refuses to put away his phone. You may want to look at the film through a racial filter, and note how so many “backwards,” brutal actions are performed by a people who are the absolute pinnacle of whiteness – and will likely never be pulled aside for airport questioning.
Personally, I thought Midsommar had a lot of interesting things to say about grief and how ashamed we are made to feel about it in conventional Western society today. A powerfully sympathetic Florence Pugh – who recently impressed in WWE biopic Fighting With My Family – portrays Dani as a woman always apologising, always stifling her sobs and always running for solitude when her anguish overwhelms her. The community central to Midsommar presents her, and the audience, with an alternative.
Midsommar ends up satisfying on multiple levels. Visually, it’s unforgettably vivid; rich in imagery and clues that encourage repeat viewings. Intellectually, there’s a lot to ponder without feeling like it’s being ham-handedly spotlighted. And, finally, emotionally, the final scenes leave you content that a real resolution has been reached, and characters can finally move forward.
Last Updated: July 29, 2019