Written & Directed by Ari Aster
Ari Aster proves doubters wrong with his sophomore feature, a return to familiar themes of family and grief centered around pagan ritual. In contrast to the dark, emotionally volatile tone of Hereditary, Midsommar presents itself with a bright yet neutral atmosphere. Aster manages to tackle romantic relationships and their conflicts with the same sure hand he brought to examining the bleak inner workings of dysfunctional families. There’s a sense of hypnosis as we journey into the world of this film, a warm uncertainty, feeling doubts about treading further only to be nudged forward by a deceptively friendly hand. Before you know it, we are too far along to turn back and can only grimace at the horrors played out before our eyes.
Dani receives news of a gutting tragedy, already psychologically fragile this moment in her life drives her into the depths of unfathomable depression. Her boyfriend, Christian, privately confesses to his friends that he feels trapped with Dani but keeps on appearances out of guilt. Pelle, one of those friends, has invited everyone to his rural home village in Sweden for a unique midsummer festival and Dani tags along. The group finds an idyllic grassy haven where the sun never sets, and the inhabitants welcome all like family. Once the week-long ceremony begins, Dani and friends start to sense that things are off and that their role in this ritual is kept vague but feels inevitable damning.
Florence Pugh is a shining point of light in a blazingly gorgeous picture, bringing deep emotions out of her character that causes her turmoil to resonate with the audience. The first ten minutes of the film set up the inciting tragedy and doesn’t get explored in much depth; instead, the story focuses on the emotional aftermath on Dani. There are striking and unsettling visuals in this opening and Aster revisits those images later in the film as our protagonist is influenced by her new environment and the intoxicants being given to her. The final images of the picture focus solely on Pugh, and it is one of the most visually stunning moments I’ve seen in a film in a while, rivaling the conclusion of Hereditary.
The story on the surface level is not terribly complicated. If you have seen the classic British horror film The Wicker Man, then a lot of the basic plot beats won’t come as a surprise. Some of the supporting characters feel flat and stock, but I argue they don’t drag down the primary performance by Pugh and the stunning technical achievements. How the movie ends is also not a genuinely shocking note, but despite that, Aster allows the mystery to exist in this world. There are folk tapestries and art on display that reveal secrets about the villagers that will be moments to freeze-frame when Midsommar comes out on Blu-ray. There’s an oracle figure which is kept hidden away and only seen in glimpses that feels like they are either the key to understanding much of the picture or proof of the villagers’ total madness.
The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is beautiful, cribbing a couple of shots from his previous work in Hereditary but adding flourishes to them. The camera is continuously taking in the overflow of details in the foreground and background, aided by the lighting and digital coloration and effects. There’s also brilliant moments of editing from Lucian Johnston (also responsible for Hereditary and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). One cut that remains with me is when Dani rushes to the bathroom in her boyfriend’s apartment, and as soon as she closes the door, we cut to her sobbing in the lavatory onboard the flight to Sweden. Aster feels intent on pushing himself beyond what he accomplished in Hereditary to create an even more intricate, thematically rich experience.
At this point, Ari Aster has earned his place as someone I will watch without ever having to hear a logline for the picture or see a single frame. His approach to horror is slow and confrontational. When gore happens, it is never for a cheap thrill, and the audience is made to grapple with what is happening on screen. Watching his films feels like reading a beautifully penned horror novel, lush with detail and creating a looming sense of cosmic balance, that once trapped in the spiral his protagonists have no more say in the matter.