Written and directed by Ari Aster
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper
MPAA rating: R for sex, drugs, cults and shit
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes
by Allison Yakulis
Hot on the heels of his incredibly impressive feature film debut Hereditary (2018), Ari Aster has returned as writer/director of the highly anticipated movie Midsommar (2019). I know it’s something a lot of my movie-loving friends have been abuzz about and, while no one said this explicitly, there was always the chance of the dreaded “sophomore slump”. I can tell you firsthand that while Midsommar might take its time unwinding on screen, nothing about it slouches. From its tense beginning moments to its final crescendo, we are treated to yet another gorgeously shot, thoroughly dramatic, unflinchingly raw piece that might be an even more satisfying watch than Aster’s first full-length foray was for moviegoers last year.
We’re told in no uncertain terms that this movie is going to be harsh. The pre-title sequence introduces us to Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on the night that Dani’s sister kills herself and their parents. It is a long scene, as Dani calls her parents worried about an unsettling email she received from her sister and only manages to reach their voicemail. She calls Christian for comfort and reassurance but doesn’t quite get it - when we swap to his perspective, his friends discuss how he’s been wanting out of this relationship for some time due to Dani’s perceived histrionics. After talking with another person (perhaps her therapist?) Dani gets another call from an unknown number and we are shown that the worst has happened. Christian gets another call from Dani, who is hyperventilating to the point of being unintelligible, and he leaves to meet her. We see Dani in her apartment sobbing, uncontrollably draped across Christian's lap as he ineffectually rubs her back for comfort. Only then do we hit the title card.
The bulk of the movie takes place about six months after Dani’s tragedy. Christian, Dani, and their friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) all join Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a fellow friend from Sweden who invites his American friends to his small, somewhat cloistered, community’s midsummer festival. Dani wasn't originally invited, but due to Christian's inability to communicate like an effing adult (seriously, dude?) he insincerely invites her and she accepts.
Our protagonists are frequently not told about the customs being observed or the meaning behind them, leaving them to muddle through on their own through observation and mimicry. On occasion, the Americans (and by extension the audience) are let in on some of the “whys” or are forewarned about what’s coming next, but this happens so rarely that viewers are left on high-alert to search for meaning or some indication of what will happen.
Midsommar manages to be extremely funny in an awkward sort of way as characters communicate their feelings poorly, misunderstand customs, and prove themselves to be the generally self-involved 20-somethings that they are. Like a schadenfreude sort of funny. Like Fyre Festival funny.
Midsommar can feel like a bit of a slow burn, but keeps a confident stride as horrific events are foreshadowed and doled out as the film progresses, ever wreathed in flowers, sunlight, and white linen. The tone actually feels more consistent and orderly than Hereditary. The finale isn't a huge twist, but rather a culmination of everything that the festival has been building toward, as well as the product of Dani’s grief process.
Daylight horror is, itself, considered a subgenre. It’s easy to be afraid in the dark, as it hides the spookiest things until an opportune moment for them to pop out. Also, functionally it serves to hide the seams on less well-polished effects. Raking these terrors out into the light can ruin the magic unless deftly handled. Midsommar does this eloquently, with clear shots of several horrifying moments (even including a reprise of an earlier, dimmer tableaux in the harsh summer light). There are artful cuts away from the gorier details, but they don’t feel like much of a reprieve as they seem to further reveal or to draw a moment out.
Midsommar has some of the most honest depictions of psychedelic/hallucinogenic drug use I’ve ever seen in film. Far from the wobbly camera shots or actors yelling about purple elephants that are often employed elsewhere, the perspective views we see have trees circulating and breathing visibly, grass growing through someone’s hand, flowers opening and closing. The actors breathe deeply, self-soothe, stare off into the distance unable to truly focus on what is being said to them. Dani, at one point, spontaneously starts speaking in Swedish, having been immersed in the language (and in various hallucinogenic teas) for about a week.
Aside from the idyllic location, the shots themselves are well-composed and interesting. There are indulgent wide shots, sweeping camera work, tense point-of-view shots, I think there's some drone footage in there - basically a joyful romp with a lens. The score is excellent, with droning strings that often give an uneasy, creep-up-your-spine sort of feeling, even when the visuals that accompany it are neutral. And of course, the special effects are top notch - they'd have to be, as you get each bloody set piece laid bare in the harsh summer sunlight.
All in all, Midsommar sparkles visually and simmers with sinister intent. Even without the meditation on grief and relationships, the visuals alone would probably make this worth seeing. It's just so well-crafted. But Aster is best loved for his elevation of the horror genre to include examinations of interpersonal relationships (as seen in Hereditary and in some of his prior short films), which keep his films character-centered and give them far more depth than your basic 90s slasher. Go see Midsommar in theaters and brag about it to your kids in another 15-20 years that you got to.