Ari Aster’s Midsommar Is a Beautiful, Horrific Nightmare

When you just KNOW something bad’s about to happen. Photo by Csaba Aknay/courtesy of A24

Ari Aster’s debut horror film, Hereditary, explored the depths of grief and the shattering of the stable family unit, while an insane demonic cult loomed nearby, ready to exact a preordained script. His sophomore feature, Midsommar, is a companion to Hereditary, in that an insane pagan cult looms nearby, ready to exact a preordained script. But Midsommar is a masterpiece all its own.

If it wasn’t clear before, let it be known here: Aster has arrived.

For many viewers, including myself, Hereditary’s graphic deaths and Toni Collette’s tortured mother figure were a truly unsettling combination. Midsommar takes those elements and elevates them to dizzying heights—sometimes through optical camera tricks mimicking mushroom drug trips, while other times through gruesome imagery disrupting the frame. Viewers are transfixed by the storyline and idyllic location, unable to look away at its most horrific moments. The experience is akin to the plight of the film’s main characters: American travelers observing the rituals of a remote Swedish village named Halsingland, where they learn firsthand the terrifying consequences of their curiosity.

Midsommar begins with a frantic Dani (Florence Pugh) trying to reach her sister and parents after a series of disturbing messages alarm her. She seeks comfort from her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who, unbeknownst to Dani, has been meaning to break up with her for more than a year. But after learning the devastating fate of her family, Christian stays with Dani, who is now a dazed shell of a person struggling to get through her grief and clinging to Christian for social and emotional support. When she learns he and a group of friends—Mark (Will Poulter), Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and Josh (William Jackson Harper)—are traveling to Sweden to witness a once-every-90-years festival called Midsommar, she decides to tag along.

The gang are moved by the pastoral beauty and calm of Halsingland, as well as its warm inhabitants, and take to consuming shrooms once there. Pelle is a native of the Swedish commune where Midsommar takes place, so he is their guide through much of the villagers’ customs and behaviors. Said customs turn out to be more and more barbaric, but Christian and the others insist on keeping an open mind. Dani, on the other hand, senses more disturbing events are to come, and she and the rest are soon unable to escape the clutches of the cheery Swedes’ traditions.

The film is washed in daylight, since the characters arrive during the period of midnight sun that blankets northern Europe. Even without the tension of night usually used in horror films, we are disoriented by the constant paradise the Halsingland folk present. It is what we don’t see that makes us fearful, as there is a constant darkness hiding within the brightness and suspicious motives among the sunny dispositions. One might consider Midsommar a modern homage or a film influenced by The Wicker Man (and, in one scene, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but it seems more inspired by the darker, original versions of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, in which namesake characters meet violent and sinister ends for moral-learning.

Pugh, whom I enjoyed in Fighting With My Family earlier this year, is extraordinary here as Dani. She exhibits a mastery of emotional range, allowing us into her character’s descents into grief and madness. Like Collette in Hereditary, she’s the anchor of this story and grapples through so much pain, even without encountering strange cults (although grief was explored much more in the previous film). Dani’s early loss only haunts her in visceral, nightmarish callbacks.

With a lengthy runtime of two-plus hours, it might seem as if there’s too much plot to digest, but there’s enough detail to make it thoroughly engrossing. It’s paced so well that the eventual “holy shit” ending becomes bigger than what anyone expected (including the cast members, who were said to have sat in stunned silence for a full 10 minutes after their first viewing). What’s surprising, however, is the film’s humor; besides having a good sense of visually affecting viewers, Aster has a morbid sense of comedy, and there’s plenty of hilarious asides thrown around to make it even more captivating.

Aster has said that Midsommar might be his last horror film, but I hope that isn’t the case. Virtually unknown before Hereditary, he’s now one of the few directors of this era to have upended the genre in a way that has spurred discussion and excitement among fans. Both of his features have the power to remain in the cultural conversation for decades to come, not to mention leave a viewer shaken for many nights after watching—one can only wonder what his demented vision will concoct next.

Midsommar was written and directed by Ari Aster; and stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper.

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