As I sat watching the final frames of Midsommar – writer/director Ari Aster’s sophomore effort after his blistering debut, Hereditary, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. This was not as some sort of sarcastic protest, more out of anxious hysteria; the kind of nervous laugh you make when faced with absurdity. For the uninitiated, to say that Midsommar is, for want of a better phrase, batshit crazy, is an understatement.
On the brink of a break-up, Dani (Florence Pugh) and her emotionally apathetic boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are forced to stay together after a family tragedy sends Dani into a grief-stricken depression. With his guilt getting the better of him, Christian reluctantly invites Dani to a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip to Sweden to attend a midsummer celebration that happens every 90 years at the ancestral commune of Christian’s friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). What starts out as a sun-soaked paradise soon descends into an unnerving and diabolical experience as the commune’s traditions start to take more sinister forms and their true intentions are revealed.
Taking a cue from a short-lived sub-genre within British cinema back in the late 60s/early 70s – dubbed ‘Folk Horror’ from Mark Gatiss’ A History of Horror series – Aster has amalgamated ideas from that era and created a unique oddity; a modern break-up film by way of The Wicker Man. Aster could have played this safe, having garnered critical and commercial acclaim for Hereditary (released only a year ago). The lure of Hollywood fame and fortune could have hindered Aster’s wonderfully macabre and creative mind in favour of something more mainstream, however with backing once again from A24 – a studio producing some of the most thought-provoking and original films in the industry at the moment – Midsommar feels like a film, appropriately, unstifled by outsider influence.
Visually, Midsommar is a treat and demands to be seen on the big screen, with the commune, the Hårga, shot in a wonderfully vivid and almost oversaturated colour palette, creating a euphoric experience for the eyes reflecting the hallucinogens being dished out throughout. Subverting genre tropes, Midsommar is shot almost entirely in daylight, brilliantly juxtaposed by the opening scenes’ bleak surroundings and subject matter. This deliberate and welcoming ruse shields you from an undercurrent of anticipated dread that runs right through.
As with Hereditary, Aster knows how to draw out these types of scenes to full effect, ramping up tension and suspense before hitting you with extreme, visceral imagery. For Midsommar (with a lengthy yet entirely warranted 147 minute runtime) this works well. The Hårga are very matter-of-fact about their bizarre customs and traditions but also all-encompassing with their approach to outsiders. As an audience, all the red flags to ‘get out!’ are there, yet you feel compelled to delve deeper into the rabbit hole – and with Reynor’s character studying anthropology, you buy into the fact that there is legitimate reason to stay. For Pugh’s character, suffering with extreme grief, and not necessarily receiving the expected emotional support from Christian (a neat touch on nihilistic and narcissist youth), there is an allure resonating from the Hårga – a lean bit of subtext on the modus operandi of many a cult.
Performance-wise, Pugh and Reynor are brilliant as the struggling couple, and elevate their performances above some clichéd supporting characters. Pugh in particular nails the emotional beats of someone in the turmoil of grief, that can make for extremely uncomfortable viewing, with Aster once again proving he can coax a memorable performance from his actors. Uncomfortable is where Midsommar really excels, most notably the ritual scenes, designed to be as unbearable for the audience to watch as they are for the characters to endure. It’s like Aster wants you to look around at one another asking the question, ‘What the fuck is going on?’
As with Hereditary, Midsommar will almost certainly divide audiences. If you go in expecting a linear, by-the-numbers horror film you will struggle to find the comparisons you will naturally seek. Midsommar is all about the deep-dive, slow-burning and sometimes restless viewing, a shared ordeal with the characters. If you go with it, you may find yourself fully indoctrinated.