When a director breaks onto the big screen with a fiery debut, it can be one of the most exciting and frightening times for cinephiles. On the one hand, there’s a new talent on the scene that could provide the next Modern Day Classic. On the other hand, the follow-up could very well bomb and ruin someone’s career. Look at Colin Trevorrow, who watched his dreams of directing Star Wars come crashing down in the wake of The Book of Henry. When it was revealed that Ari Aster, the director of last year’s breakout hit Hereditary, already had a second film in production, and was editing it as the former became a critical and commercial hit (on word of mouth, of course, after a notoriously bad CinemaScore), cinema lovers found themselves in a conundrum. Could this follow-up be as legendary as that first feature? Would Aster be influenced by the praise and rehash the former work in the latter? Fortunately for everyone involved, Midsommar is nothing like Hereditary, in all the right ways. It trades in scares for the creeps, finds ways to dive into weighty subjects, and, while never topping the best moments of Hereditary, delivering a film that is wholeheartedly better in every way.
College students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) have been in a rough patch for quite some time. While Christian has been looking for a way to break up with his anxious girlfriend for months, the unfortunate timing of her sister’s double-murder suicide has made any attempt at ending things inconvenient. When Christian gets an opportunity to visit the home of his Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) for their once-every-90-years midsummer celebration, he reluctantly invites Dani along, thinking she’d say no. She accepts, and soon the trio, along with Christian’s classmates Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) arrive in Pelle’s commune, the Hårga, where things quickly escalate to a disturbing level that will forever change the lives of every student in the group.
At its core, Midsommar is a film that’s more creepy than scary. This may sound like an insult, but in fact I offer it as the highest praise. Many of the greatest horror films of all time are less scary and more genuinely disturbing – The Blair Witch Project, Get Out, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Exorcist, just to name a few. These are all films and influences that Aster has clearly studied, and incorporated into his film with care and thought. You can tell how much he’s inspired by European filmmakers when the film throws in a shot straight out of Michael Haneke’s perfect 1997 film Funny Games. Haneke’s influence can be seen plastered across the film. However, there’s no film that influenced Aster more than The Wicker Man. It’s really remarkable how much this film borrows from and references the 1973 classic. Now, under normal circumstances, I would clarify beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m referring to the 1973 Wicker Man, which involves cults, sex, and religion in a creepy tour-du-force, and not the 2006 Nic Cage version. However, when the film blatantly has someone show up in a bear suit, which is decidedly not in the ’73 film, I can’t help but think that Aster is a true fan of both. In fact, Aster draws from both films so heavily, I’m honestly not sure how close this film comes to plagiarism, if the line even exists at all. And I’m not even sure if I’m meaning this as a compliment or insult to the film’s capabilities. Aster knows exactly what to draw from his heroes in order to craft a film that, at its core, is a terrifying experience without actually being terrifying. Mostly, he creates this experience by playing in the Uncanny Valley, making things just weird enough to make us uncomfortable, but not different enough for us to explain why. The people don’t act like normal humans, bodies are distorted, mangled, and – in one haunting scene – smashed, and the sky is always bright and blue (signifiers of warmth and safety, which this film is decidedly not). These are not traits of traditional horror films, and it will fill you with unease as you watch the characters trek through Sweden, knowing that something isn’t right, but not able to describe what. Even more infuriating (in all the right ways) is Aster’s decision to withhold any form of fright until exactly the hour mark – until then, things remain mostly normal. Midsommar serves as both a summary and a demonstration of the skillful act of “unsettling” over “terrifying.”
Of course, this being an Aster film, the goal here is not just to make a Wicker Man remake and call it quits. No, Aster wants to use this formula to explore deeper themes: themes of grief and of toxic relationships. Midsommar lays out each and every one of its themes inside of a twelve-minute prologue that is, and I do not say this lightly, an example of perfect filmmaking. If Aster were to release the prologue as a short film, it would not only stand on its own, it would stand as piece of filmmaking on par with the film as a whole. Aster has a fascination with the dirty combination of guilt and grief that comes in the wake of tragedies, and he uses both his filmmaking prowess and his horror knowledge to emphasize these emotions. An early scene features the grief-stricken Dani attending a party for the first time since the tragedy – dressed in a pitch-perfect outfit of hoodies, sweats, and unwashed shorts, the depression trifecta – the camera closes in on a claustrophobic close-up as the conversations are muddled through a dull ringing; this is, in essence, one of the sharpest depictions of depression on film. The film, however, goes deeper as Dani becomes ingrained with the commune, seeing flashes of her family around her as she slowly begins a descent into either insanity or serenity, depending on your interpretation. What’s more, the film also explores the concept of communal grief, as the commune expresses itself through group chanting and mirroring emotions, which is both terrifying and, somehow, completely freeing. As weird as it looks, it provides an outlet for grief that Dani’s personal, ignored, and guttural shrieks just don’t address. And considering the lack of emotional support she gets in her relationship, the cult may, in fact, be the healthiest option for her. To quote Rocky Horror Picture Show (a send-up to both 50s B-movies and 70s folk horror), she may just need to stay sane inside insanity.
Of course, even deeper than Aster’s desire to investigate grief is his desire to explore toxic relationships. The thrust of this film is what happens when the person we love more than anything is emotionally unavailable and mentally manipulative. From the onset, we are shown how sh*tty a boyfriend Christian is – when Dani calls him in a panic due to increasing anxiety over her sister’s well-being and the state of her relationship, Christian’s response is a callous “Did we…talk about doing something tonight?” Of course, once things kick into gear, the film explores how toxic relationships can be made worse through tragedy, as Christian clearly doesn’t care about Dani anymore, but also feels guilty over what happened to her sister. His invitation for her to join them on the trip to Sweden is more of an attempt to avoid a fight than an actual invitation – as he tells his friends, “I invited her to come to Sweden, but she’s not coming. She accepted, but it’s just to not make things weird.” Over the film’s 140-minute runtime, there are constant signs and clues of the ways Christian manipulates or ignores Dani’s feelings. When she finds out he’s heading to Sweden without telling her, he tries to blame her as a means of guilting her into approving of the trip. When she calls him on this sh*tty behavior, he just threatens to leave, forcing her to become dependent on his whims. He has no idea when her birthday is, or how long they’ve been together. He is, by all accounts, one of the worst onscreen boyfriends cinema has ever seen.
Meanwhile, the question is continuously raised over Christian’s constant ignorance over the creepy goings-on of the village. Whenever Dani notices someone disappear, or some horrific happenstance, or so on, Christian always blows her off. “Oh, murder is normal here! We put our elderly in nursing homes; that’s the exact same thing.” And what makes the film brilliant is you can’t tell if Christian’s ignorance is an attempt to gaslight his girlfriend, because he’s just a dumb American, because he’s willfully blind, or some combination of the three. It makes for an intriguing mystery and a smart depiction of the balance of power in a toxic relationship. All of this would be interesting enough, but what really puts Aster’s film over the edge (and puts him in league with The Wicker Man) is that the cult, as awful as they may be, may actually be the good guys at the end of the day. While they do some weird sh*t and have some horrific methods, their driving force and sense of morality comes from love. When they ask Dani, “Does [Christian] feel like home to you?” it plays out not as manipulative, but as truly caring and uplifting. Later, when Dani has a moment of personal and mental triumph, she turns out and, in a drug-fueled daze, notices the crowd applauding her victory – with Christian centered out as the only one unenthused. It’s both a striking metaphor for how it feels when your partner is unsupportive and a fantastic juxtaposition between the two contrasts. And when the film builds up to a shocking, climactic conclusion, the cult and the film work in tandem to give Dani the perfect conclusion, resulting in one of the best shots of the year. Aster uses all these tricks to explore how toxic relationships can bring about destruction, and he does so with more than a healthy dose of brilliance.
One of my favorite things about this film, and about Aster as a director, is his ability to blend comedy with horror. Much like Haneke, David Lynch, and Yorgos Lanthimos before him, Aster finds ways to emphasize the absurdity in the terrifying situations the characters find themselves in, and elicit laughs from the material. What makes these directors – Aster included – great is that they understand the absurdity of the scenarios these characters find themselves in, and use the general uneasiness the audience feels as material for comedy. In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Dennis Hopper menacingly rants about how the only good beer is Pabst Blue Ribbon. In Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a character who must decide which family member to kill ties them up, spins around in a circle blindfolded, and hopes that he’ll hit his target. And Aster is no different. He knows how to make his audience uncomfortable, and then hit them with something hilariously weird to mess with their emotions, all in the right ways. When the characters realize that this bizarre world they inhabit is 21 hours of sunlight, a stoned Mark (who I will get to in a minute) shouts out, “Why is the sky like that? I don’t like it!” Romantic paintings line the walls that feature stories about magic potions made of p*bic hairs and menstrual blood. The cult defends their weirdness with the totally-normal statement, “But don’t worry: we respect incest laws.” When people start disappearing, the Hålga doesn’t even bother hiding their efforts – legs stick out of the ground half-buried. And just when you think things can’t get any crazier, a character points out, “Are we just going to ignore the bear?” The reply? “It’s a bear.” However, through it all is perhaps Aster’s greatest comedic touch: Christian’s obliviousness. As I mentioned above, Christian’s obliviousness to the horrors around them is a key plot point as things go off the rails. However, what’s so brilliant about it is that even if you don’t interpret it as willful gaslighting and ignoring Dani’s fears and idiosyncrasies, it’s still a magnificent character trait – Christian is so dumb that he’s willing to look past warning signs more obvious than two teens having sex at Camp Crystal Lake. And it’s even more brilliant if you interpret it as a satire of American naiveté; “Oh, of course they use p*bic hair love spells and murder the elderly. They’re European! That’s just what they do!” And yes, you read that right – there’s a p*bic hair pie that is used as a love spell. And when confronted about it, the Hålga just respond, “Yeah, that sounds right.” If you can honestly tell me that this film doesn’t have a sense of humor after reading that description, I don’t want to live in your sad little world.
And the icing on the cake for this weird, wonderful little film is that Aster’s direction is, at the end of the day, just really f*cking good. Now, I’ll be perfectly frank with you: nothing in this film is as good as the best moments of Hereditary. There’s nothing that touches The Nuts Scene or the ceiling reveal. But I’m pleased to report that while the film never touches the best moments of Hereditary, it is, in fact, a better film overall. I mean, it’s hard not to fall in love with this film’s fairy tale aesthetic from the very beginning, when they introduce the entirety of the story with a gorgeous medieval portrait. The portraits actually serve as an interesting motif throughout the film, commenting on the story and hinting on events to come whether they’re in the foreground or hidden in the corner of the screen. Foreshadowing is Aster’s strong suit, and he plays with it here – while Dani’s fascination with plant life proves to be important to the film’s finale, Mark’s obsession with ticks is heavily built up as important before being cast off (brilliantly) as a character trait. Meanwhile, Lucian Johnston’s editing is top notch – a challenge for a two hour and twenty minute epic horror. There’s a quick cut of Dani crying that brilliantly transports her from a crappy apartment to a plane, as well as an incredible cut involving the closing and reopening of eyes. Meanwhile, the cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is some of the best of the year. There’s some incredible mood-setting shots that seem cheap when described out loud, but will chill you in execution – shots like a shaking camera to capture turbulence, upside down journeys into hell, and slow push-ins on everything from conversations to creepy events. And when the film calls upon its cinematography to create gorgeous wide shots of Swedish landscapes, boy does it deliver.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is its sound design – from muted conversations to echoing roars to an unsettling score by The Haxan Cloak, the film manages to mess with the audience’s mind not just through the visual medium, but through the audial as well. One of my favorite moments in the film is when the score actually incorporates Dani’s heavy breathing into the music, creating one of the tensest moments of the year. Meanwhile, two of the best moments of the year come from the film’s third act. The first is an insane, trippy dance sequence that sums up every theme in the film in one hair-raising experience. The other is a sex scene that may go down as the creepiest in modern cinematic history. It’s hard to describe exactly why this is the case, but trust me – it’s going to haunt you more than titillate you. And while Aster still struggles when it comes to endings (I’m still disappointed in how the last five minutes of Hereditary completely dropped the ball), he does manage to recover with a final shot that lasts throughout the ages. In terms of cinematography, sound, editing, color, and direction, this is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive outings of the year.
Now, in terms of the performances, Aster has once again proven himself to be a master of performance coaxing. While Florence Pugh isn’t quite as memorable as Toni Collette, she still manages to give a remarkable performance, filled with terror, grief, and a touch of insanity. I’m not sure what she did to bring about those guttural sobs throughout the film, and I’m not sure I want to know. Meanwhile, Jack Reynor is perfectly douchey as Christian, playing the role exactly the way you should. In Reynor’s mind (or at least the character’s), Christian is the good guy, just trying to get through life without hurting Dani’s feelings. And yet, he’s consistently an ass to everyone around him. One of my favorite moments comes when, to save his own hide, Reynor flips a switch instantly and turns on his best friends. It’s hilarious and loathsome all at the same time. I wish William Jackson Harper had more to do as Josh, Christian’s classmate, but he’s exactly right for the role, while Vilhelm Blomgren pretty much spends the entire film operating at “creepy foreigner” level. Among the community, Gunnel Fred is an intimidating, yet hilarious leader, not unlike Olivia Colman’s iconic turn in The Lobster, while Isabelle Grill’s Maja is hauntingly memorable. But honestly, I just want to talk about Will Poulter. Will Poulter is f*cking great in this film. Every vocal inflection, every shoulder shrug, every haphazard attempt to seduce Swedish women is a stroke of sh*tty brilliance. And just when you think he can’t get any worse, or any funnier…he pulls out a vape. If slow moving horror and discomfort mixed with pretty images aren’t enough to sell you on this movie, then at least see it for Will Poulter.
Midsommar is a mesmerizing slow burn of a nightmare that I adored from beginning to end. It’s a film that can shock, haunt, entertain, and yes, even surprise you with its twisting, turning, ingenious plot. I will not lie to you and pretend that this film will be for everyone. The elderly couple behind me who wouldn’t shut the f*ck up clearly hated it, and walked out an hour in. But those of you who appreciate art, who appreciate things with a message, who experiment with art forms, genres, and thematic material are in for a real treat. I adored this film. And if you like great art that takes risks while never sacrificing the entertainment value, you will too.