Cast: Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Wilhelm Blomgren
Director: Ari Aster
Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
With just two feature films, writer-director Ari Aster has proven he can weave troubling tales of psychic damage, familial grief, and cultish terror. The idea of mass hysteria, and how it connects to the hysteria within the self, is a major component to Aster’s latest creation, Midsommar. Whereas his previous film, Hereditary, was mostly a self-serious dirge into the abyss until letting loose for a Rosemary's Baby-esque finale, Midsommar doubles down on the folkloric horror tropes. It also, rather surprisingly, uses a heavy dose of dark humor to lessen the blow of some of Aster’s more attention-grabbing flourishes.
The film begins in a similar tonal place as the first half of Hereditary, with our central character, Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with a horrific family tragedy. Her deep anxiety is channeled onto her longtime boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who is emotionally detached and looking for a way out of the relationship. His pack of douchey grad-school friends are no more sympathetic, including Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Their plans are to visit rural Sweden to observe a commune’s summer solstice festival in hopes of writing their graduate thesis’s on the subject, and Christian invites Dani to tag along more out of guilt and obligation than anything.
The film’s opening stretch is dread-inducing, with Aster employing many of the same stylistic tricks used in his first film; (long tracking shots, fancy camera movements, discordant music swells, dimly lit compositions), but once the group arrive in Sweden, Midsommar opens itself up to a pastel-colored visual palette. We know from the outset that these smiling flower people are up to something, and Aster doesn’t really try to hide that fact. Instead, the film becomes a fascinating case study in male privilege. Dani, still reeling from tragedy, can sense right away that all is not well here, and yet all of the men rationalize obvious red flags by appealing to their anthropological studies and cultural ignorance. Meanwhile, Dani continues to feel isolated from the group as well as herself.
Amidst pagan rituals and white robe-wearing hippies, one can sense Midsommar situating itself as the ultimate breakup film. Christian and Dani are obviously on the verge of ending things, and yet neither can accept the fact that it’s over. Dani’s piercing guttural screams, which come early and are repeated often, become the film’s heartbeat. There is no hope of mending things. There is no escape.
Aster’s triumph here is his ability to meld our anxiety as viewers to Dani’s fears. In some ways, the film is about a woman staking a claim to her autonomy. In a performance of raw nerves and searing emotion, Pugh taps into the same kind of anguish as Toni Collete in Hereditary, and yet we are never afraid of her. She always remains fragile and empathetic. As things steer into the realm of grotesquerie and horror, Pugh grabs the film by the throat and takes center stage. She is the real deal.
Shot by by Pawel Pogorzelski, Midsommar is brightly sun-drenched, which makes the inevitable descent into madness all the more disquieting. Using a combination of static shots and elaborate crane moves, Aster and his team of set designers and art decorators have created a truly authentic world here. The film takes its time; showing us a set of strange rituals from the standpoint of clueless Americans and then ratchets up the dread as the situations become more bizarre and violent. Even as the film is methodically paced and interested in stillness, Aster doesn’t skimp on the gore and melodramatic outbursts. Some of the film’s most indelible images are of extreme physical violence, but they are inexorably tied into the visceral nature of Dani’s emotional and psychological state. One of the most powerful sequences occurs near the end when Dani is overcome with tremendous pain, grief, and anger; wailing like a banshee as female members of the commune mimic her every movement and scream. In this one moment, the physical and the metaphysical become intertwined. As troubling as it seems, this may be the first time Dani has felt this fully alive.
Superficially, Aster has conjured a folk horror movie ala The Wicker Man, but he also taps into the anxieties of trying to process trauma. The scares come from a feeling of claustrophobia, of being disconnected from reality (cleverly visualized in some subtle psychedelic drug tripping scenes), and not feeling at home within yourself. During the heightened fire and brimstone finale, heavily aided by The Haxan Cloak’s gorgeously haunting score, Dani comes to a realization both liberating and terrifying. Pugh’s face during the final shot says volumes. It is the visual representation of the pageantry of pain; with the realization that the cure might be going through the flames and coming out a monster.