Ari Aster’s latest film, Midsommar, is as carefully constructed as his 2018 breakout, Hereditary. There are some shared themes, like families, grief, and cults; the main character is, again, a woman pushed to the edge. And it manages to be just as unsettling, despite the fact that it takes place almost entirely under brilliantly sunny skies.
Despite all the similarities to the writer-director’s debut film, Midsommar is very much its own beast, a folk-horror film in the tradition of The Wicker Man that also mines existential dread from the raw anguish felt by its main character, Dani (a heartbreaking yet fierce Florence Pugh).
Before the opening credits even roll, we see a horrific tragedy change Dani’s life forever; her only source of comfort is her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who was just about to break up with her before it happened, and stays with her after out of a sense of duty that’s not backed up by any emotional investment.
The couple’s dysfunctional attachment means that Christian feels obligated to invite Dani on the Swedish sojourn he’s covertly planned with grad-school pals Josh (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s Will Poulter) at the request of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who’s eager to show his American pals the very special midsummer festival that’s held in the rural commune where he grew up. She decides to tag along, to almost everyone’s annoyance.
Even before the group gets to Pelle’s village, where all kinds of increasingly alarming traditions await, Midsommar establishes an uncomfortable tone that will resonate with anyone who’s ever been involved in, or been on the close periphery of, a relationship that’s still limping along but really needs to be put out of its misery.
As much as Dani tries to keep her fragile mood in check, it’s all undone when the group pulls up to the outskirts of the festival and decides the first thing they should do is take a bunch of psychedelic mushrooms.
Her 'bad trip' was already underway, but from that point on it only gets worse in every sense of the phrase—until she realises the support system she’s come to rely on, in the form of a checked-out boyfriend who can’t even be bothered to remember her birthday, is in dire need of a more empathetic replacement.
Pugh gives the standout performance here, helped along by the fact that Dani is the most sympathetic and detailed character, though Reynor is also good as a guy who’s affable enough, but also isn’t particularly concerned by his inability to feel empathy.
The other main characters are more thinly drawn, with Josh mostly focused on gathering material for his anthropology thesis, and Mark sent into a tailspin by the first pretty local he makes eye contact with.
The Swedes, including Pelle, are more hard to read—though that seems like a deliberate choice to maintain their mystique, and certain individuals do reveal their motivations as the story progresses.
Much like he did in Hereditary—with the dollhouses, and the human-sized house whose occupants were being manipulated (much like dolls) by forces beyond their control—Aster crafts an overall sense of unease in Midsommar not just through the script, but also his technical choices.
He’s fond of overhead shots that peer down at characters in motion, and framing people in windows and mirrors, adding visual interest while also acknowledging the artificial cinematic nature of what’s happening. Geometric shapes, symbols, and foreign languages, subtitled and translated with deliberate infrequency, are recurring motifs.
Aside from a few big flourishes, the special effects are generally subtle, and are often used to show one person’s chemically altered or otherwise unreliable point of view.
Aster also constantly creates the feeling that significant details are lurking in the background of every shot. Even on the big screen, it’s impossible to take in all the nuances of the artwork displayed in the film, and we’re not really meant to.
The clues that matter, like an array of folk-art paintings depicting a certain fertility ritual, a passing mention of a fatal fire, a random bear in a cage, or a particular building that the visitors are told not to worry about, are all acknowledged, no matter how quickly, before they come back around when the story needs them to.
And unlike Hereditary, there are no dark corners for supernatural entities to foment terror; almost all of Midsommar, which takes place (as the title implies) in a setting and season where the sun shines nearly 24 hours a day, is bathed in idyllic sunlight, which would be enough to disorient the outsiders even without the escalation of, well, everything else.
Quite obviously, we’re not going to reveal anything that happens once the festival really gets going, but if you saw Hereditary, you’re probably expecting freaky rituals and stomach-turning body horror, and you would not be wrong.
Both Hereditary and Midsommar go for the slow burn, but the former unfurls its sudden bursts of violence in the tasteful environs of suburban Utah, and while there’s some deeply weird, hidden shit afoot there, at least the world is recognisable. Midsommar’s characters are isolated miles from civilisation, in the middle of a forest in an unfamiliar country, surrounded on all sides by strange customs.
The first huge WTF moment is nervously shrugged off as “cultural differences” by the Americans who can’t quite wrap their heads around what they’ve seen, with an added layer of false safety they cling to longer than they should—namely, why would their kind, cool, caring buddy Pelle invite them to his hometown if he knew they were going to experience nightmares galore?
Why, indeed. But lest you decide that Midsommar is merely an artier take on a summer-vacation-from-hell horror flick (which it is, to some degree), the movie then takes yet another turn.
I don’t want to say that the nearly two-and-a-half hours that have come before, which contain some of the most truly disturbing images any filmmaker has ever dreamed up, give way to a happy ending. But in the final minutes of a spectacularly grim final scene, an undeniable wave of relief and even uplift surges forth, and the despair that’s permeated every dazzling frame almost starts to fade away.
Maybe it is a happy ending? The aftermath of wondering leaves you feeling completely out of sorts in ways you never expected, which was surely the intention of Aster—an auteur who specialises in making you want to hide your eyes, even though you can’t tear them away from what’s happening onscreen—from the very beginning.
Midsommar is out August 8 in Australian cinemas.