Midsommar is the second film from director Ari Aster and the follow up to his highly regarded debut Hereditary.
After experiencing a tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) is invited on a trip to Sweden by her insensitive and toxic boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Christian and his friends Josh (Wiliam Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) are anthropology students, invited by fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit the commune in Hälsingland, where he grew up, and to witness a once-every-ninety-years summer festival.
It doesn’t take long for the visitors to warm up to the Hårga and their idyllic, welcoming, psychotropic drug-friendly commune. But gradually, slowly, almost imperceptibly, things start to feel… off. As the festival continues and events become stranger, the relationships between the visitors become more fraught and before long the situation goes awry.
Getting right down to it: Midsommar is very good. But it is also much less accessible than Hereditary because it is weird, unsettling and if we’re honest, probably a bit too long. The meandering middle section observing the bizarre festival rituals might not be for everyone, but if you let it, Midsommar will slowly and surely make its presence felt.
In some ways Midsommar is predictable, as events are seeded and telegraphed and never fully hidden if you pay close enough attention. The key is that much like the visitors themselves, the audience does not know what to pay attention to – until it’s too late.
Alongside Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Hereditary popularised the term ‘elevated horror’ – a phrase that appeased film snobs and riled horror fans in equal measure – with Aster notably referring to Hereditary as a family drama rather than a horror movie. With Midsommar, he has no such room to manoeuvre. It is unquestionably a horror film, but one which again deals with the dynamics of a faltering relationship. Instead of a family in crisis, Midsommar shows us a partnership on the brink.
Like Hereditary, Midsommar presents us with a character in the midst of almost insurmountable grief. The early stages of the film and Dani’s reactions are heart wrenching. Florence Pugh’s incredible performance is just raw despair and it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Dani’s grief leads her to cling to the only bit of stability she has left in her life, the selfish and inconsiderate Christian, and her fragile emotional state means she is unable to see through him. When Dani has legitimate complaints, Christian gaslights her into apologising for them, and the catalyst for her presence on the trip is an invite Christian extends only to feel better about himself.
Midsommar’s folk horror stylings bring up the obvious, yet not unfair comparison to Robin Hardy’s seminal heathen creeper, The Wicker Man. But despite Midsommar’s highbrow pedigree, there are other similarities to genre classics that will not be popular with those who like their horror ‘elevated’. Midsommar definitely reminds us of Eli Roth’s grotty holiday nightmare Hostel, as tourists blunder around a foreign country, lacking both respect for the locals and any self-awareness. Likewise, outsiders finding themselves caught up in perverse and barbaric rituals has its lineage in another decidedly un-elevated horror camp – the Italian Cannibal Cycle. Also, despite the smiling faces and summer linens, the intellectuals studying primitive rites means there are shades of Cannibal Holocaust lurking amongst the flowers.
However, Midsommar still manages to feel original, with the plot becoming almost secondary to the way in which it tries to disturb you and the pervasive strangeness that defines it. It combines with a creative sound design that delivers effective sonic disorientation, as screeching strings contrast with the bright blue skies of the Swedish summer and the midnight sun. In one particularly effective sequence the sound is reduced to nothing more than a muffled hum to underpin a Hårga ritual – the kind of muted, internal half-noise that you might hear before fainting.
Crucially, Midsommar takes itself and the genre seriously, meaning Aster’s work is far more interesting than fence sitting horror-comedy or yet another tepid franchise instalment. So while it’s absurd to suggest the genre has been ‘saved’ by elevated horror, it’s certainly received a shot in the arm from the likes of Aster, Peele and also Nicolas Winding Refn.
Originally pitched as something of a slasher movie, Aster opted instead for a more character-driven piece. Midsommar is unconventional in that it does not intend to terrify you; it prefers to build on a rising sense of dread to gradually unsettle the viewer, and it is this ability to be uncomfortable and really get under your skin that makes Midsommar an essential, albeit weird and messed up, watch.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Midsommar’ opened in the US on July 3 and opened in Australia on August 8.