Much like his previous effort Hereditary, writer/director Ari Aster once again relentlessly picks at the gaping wounds of grief and loss in his latest film, Midsommar, albeit both stories could not be more different from each other in their approach. Whereas his feature-length directorial debut was a weighty exploration of familial trauma and how it can consume and destroy everyone around you, Midsommar is more about how we project our grief onto others and sometimes latch onto less than ideal individuals while we’re in the midst of feeling desperate and isolated, all set against the backdrop of a sun-bleached hallucinatory nightmare that’s deeply unsettling (yet, oddly cathartic) at times.
That being said, while I do enjoy both of Aster’s filmic projects a great deal, I still feel that when it comes to delivering a cinematic gut punch and/or nerve-shredding terror, Hereditary achieves it far more confidently than Midsommar does, as the latter is a bit more contemplative and dreamlike in nature. But that doesn’t mean Aster shies away from truly disturbing thematic elements here either, this is just a whole different beast than Hereditary all around (which is a good thing). Also, the most enjoyable aspect of this story, to me, is that I feel like anyone who has ever questioned whether or not they’ve been a good significant other to their romantic partners will leave Midsommar feeling undeniably uncomfortable, with critical moments sure to leave them squirming in their seats.
At the beginning of Midsommar, we are introduced to college student Dani (Florence Pugh), who has recently experienced an unimaginable family trauma that sends her already fragile psyche spiraling right into the arms of her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who puts in a bare minimum effort in terms of helping her process her grief and keep their relationship going. When Dani finds out her boyfriend and college chums Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) have been invited by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a student originally from a small village in Sweden, to accompany him home during their summer break for a very special festival, she ends up coming along, despite the fact that she’s still reeling from her recent tragedy.
Once they arrive, things start off innocently enough (as they always do in horror), with the gang taking some mushrooms and trying to get acclimated with nature and their new surroundings, but after a series of rituals begin, the Americans quickly realize that they’re smack dab in the middle of something far more sinister than their idyllic surroundings, exceedingly welcoming hosts, and endless daylight that envelops them would happen to suggest. And that’s when Aster slowly begins to peel back the layers, revealing the hauntingly bizarre customs that put the outsiders squarely in harm’s way.
With Midsommar, it feels like Aster is exorcising some very personal demons here, even more so than in Hereditary (the director recently called his latest a “break-up film” on Twitter, which feels 100 percent accurate), but for as bleak as it is at times, it also has some brilliant moments of levity peppered throughout his script, which makes the quiet dread just lurking behind every closed door and every cordial smile all the more disconcerting. That being said, while Aster utilizes some nightmarish iconography to drive home the disquieting horrors at play in this cultish commune known as Hälsingland, there are a few story threads that he weaves into Midsommar’s narrative tapestry that are left dangling at the film’s conclusion, which was a bit of a bummer considering how much attention to detail was given to the rest of his disturbing tale.
On a visual level, though, Midsommar is a masterful work of art that is truly unparalleled to any other horror movie I’ve seen so far in 2019. The camerawork on display here from cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (who also lensed Hereditary) takes viewers on a dizzying and dazzling descent as we watch Dani get swept up in the all-encompassing madness as it unfolds (there’s a dance competition sequence to crown the new “May Queen” that left me breathless afterward). In terms of the performances, there isn’t a weak link in Midsommar, but the film truly belongs to Pugh, who at times feels like she is just ripping her guts wide open for viewers, delivering one of the most brutally raw performances of the year. Dani’s grief and insecurities are palpable, and Pugh transforms her character into something so much more than just Christian’s damaged and clingy girlfriend. Without a doubt, Pugh’s work in Midsommar is on an entirely different level.
With Aster admirably swinging for the fences in Midsommar, I can’t help but admire the risks he takes with his follow-up feature, as it is a brilliantly conceived slice of pagan horror of which we don’t often see the likes of very often these days. But the film has been touted as one of the most visceral experiences audiences will have this year, and for as much as I enjoyed Midsommar and am excited to revisit it just so I can bask in its revolting revelries even more, there is a part of me that wishes Aster had pushed the envelope just a little bit further. Make no mistake, though: Midsommar is an impressive, albeit flawed, sophomore effort from Aster, who once again demonstrates just why he’s one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.
Movie Score: 4/5