Synopsis: After suffering a personal tragedy, Dani accompanies her boyfriend on a trip to rural Sweden to experience a midsummer festival. Their relationship already strained and Dani going through her own emotional turmoil, they come face to face with the unsettling practices and rituals of the community, and despite their hesitation, find themselves participating whether they’re ready to or not.
Review: After seeing the first preview for Ari Aster’s new movie MIDSOMMAR I felt like revisiting the Robin Hardy classic THE WICKER MAN, the ultimate title in pagan horror. What I find most terrifying about that film is that underneath all the sunny dispositions and harmless frolicking in the (mid)summer sun is a vibe of something not necessarily evil, but certainly unsettling and eerily unfamiliar, which crescendos in that whopper of a finale that capitalizes on those uneasy feelings. Aster’s new movie is endlessly, quietly unnerving in all the same ways, taking a similar but still unique approach to day-time horror that may be a bit too large in scope for its own good, but succeeds in providing a core-shaking, surprisingly funny and ultimately cathartic experience.
At the core of MIDSOMMAR and what drives us through the downward spiral and out the other end is a story about one woman’s grief and her journey of moving on from tragedy. Aster wastes no time buckling us for the ride with one of the more disturbing opening acts in a recent horror memory, throwing us into the shoes of Dani (Florence Pugh) who is reeling after the death of her parents and sister. With his first movie, HEREDITARY, which no one would blame you for thinking would be his out-of-the-gate masterpiece, Aster displayed a gripping knack for staging his shots, displaying precision that forces you to face the terror in stillness. Here he displays that same talent, peeling back bleak layer after layer and letting the gut-wrenching wailing of Dani take us into the main story. That’s in the first ten minutes of this 150-minute film.
A crux on Dani’s recovery is her emotionally absent boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), of four years (he would say three and a half), who doesn’t take much regard for her own emotional state and throws a lot of blame back on her. She concedes to him too quickly, throwing out too much “I’m sorry” and “You’re right.” She can’t deal with her struggles and plunges deeper into emotional hell because of him, but she stays with him, and he out of pity, decides to take her with him on his guys trip to Sweden for a midsummer, introduced to them by their always (almost creepily) pleasant roommate, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).
The second we arrive on the outskirts of the remote Swedish community something feels immediately off. Nothing screams evil, mind you. There are no dark skies or people staring ominously at our protagonists through dirty windows. It’s all about the open fields of green and the ever smiling and polite people that can’t help but be disconcerting. It’s like the Manson family if they took more baths and ditched the abandoned movie lot for greener pastures.
That unsettling vibe only heightens when they get to the actual community, hand-built huts and homes scattered across the field and people in white gowns and shirts running about. Aster, production designer Henrik Svensson, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have meticulously crafted a world that feels ripped out of time and that manages to look exactly like paradise but feel like an extension of hell. From here on out we never step foot out of the commune, and despite the fresh open air, it becomes increasingly claustrophobic.
Once we enter this world the movie will put any viewer to the test as it builds its slow burn and relies heavily on mood and exactness. Not so much a horror movie in the sense of tension leading to big scares but relying entirely on the audience to buy into everything that’s going on, wondering about what they can’t see, and buying fully into the performances. On that last note, Pugh continues to prove a rising talent who delivers what will go down as far and away best work she’s done yet, and I can see it being a hallmark of hers throughout her career. Endlessly captivating and taking Dani through a flurry of emotions, at one moment quiet and the next experiencing a crisis of anxiety that leads to a breakdown. Like Toni Collette in HEREDITARY, so much of MIDSOMMAR hinges on the excellence of Aster’s leading lady, and Pugh’s performance never lets up for a second, earning our sympathies all the way to the shocking conclusion.
Her character arc is the heart of the movie, and if there is an aspect of the movie where it’s stepping on its own foot is that in the establishing of this big, unsettling environment the growth of Dani and her dynamic with Christian is somewhat buried underneath it all. There is so much to showcase about this gorgeous unsettling community that while we buy into it all by the end, it feels like the characters have spent a lot of their screen time taking things in rather than having meaningful interactions. Their development is there, to be sure, but can’t but sometimes come second to rituals and mysterious goings on.
To be fair there are a few moments that push character development through hellish ringers, like when Dani witnesses a terrible sight and begins to break down in panic and heartbreak. In perhaps the movie’s most perfect scene, she wails and hyperventilates while surrounded by other women of the village, who soon begin to mimic her pain and, as their screams progress they, in unison, begin to collectively breathe and work through the pain. It’s all things terrifying and shocking cathartic, as if making the movie’s ultimate statement in several wrenching minutes.
As I said, it’s a movie that will test the patience of the audience, but if they don’t buy into the atmospherics, the rest of the cast make the runtime a breeze as well, including Blomgren, Reynor, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter having a casual chemistry, with the latter getting a lot of laughs as the filter-less member of the group who can’t help but have a witty comment for everything that goes on around him. Reynor in particularly is quietly commanding as Christian, who with a look or phony gesture of love towards Dani quickly becomes the secret antagonist of the movie.
It should also be mentioned how consistently funny the movie is. The movie is able to operate at a level of high-strangeness given that so much dread is gotten out being sucked into a world filled with people that, on the surface, seems too pleasant. The characters respond awkwardly to all the practices of the community that you can’t help but laugh, and because it’s a nervous sort of laughter it actually makes everything work on a completely different level. In a way, the humor caught me off guard because I found it took me into the experience even more, putting me in the character’s position, which has its own chilling effect.
As the movie digs deeper into the traditions of the pagan community and the anxieties it brings out in the main characters it becomes an increasingly vicious, maddening spiral of impending dread. Between Pugh’s masterclass performance, Aster’s awe-inspiring attention to detail, an encompassing score by The Haxan Cloak and the spurts of graphic violence I dare not spoil, there’s always something across this horror epic to unsettle and make you writhe in your chair. In the end, MIDSOMMAR is a movie that deserves to be mediated on and examined across numerous viewings, especially with an ending that is surprisingly hopeful and emotionally satisfying. Aster rises above the sophomore slump in the most daring fashion, crafting something that has enough going on on the surface to take viewers willing to go along for the ride on a horror experience that will shake them to their core and require them to, more than once, take a moment, and just breathe.