Note: This post will contain mild spoilers for Midsommar, though nothing you probably couldn’t have gleaned by watching the trailer.
What’s Ari Aster’s Midsommar about? Well, it’s about a lot of things. It’s about the moment when you realize you’re trapped in a relationship that’s destined to die a death by a thousand cuts. It’s about how we process grief and how we wield revenge. It’s a savage critique of the Boorish American, always charging in with his dick out and yet another thoughtless question on his lips.
Midsommar‘s about all of those things, but in practice it’s basically a break-up melodrama tossed in a blender with the folk horror sub-genre. Are you familiar with the folk horror sub-genre? If not, I have good news – Midsommar‘s gonna melt your brain! If yes, well, you probably know what you’re getting into here (which isn’t a complaint, by the way; familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when we’re talking about a film this well-executed).
We begin, in what’s quickly becoming tradition for Aster, with an unspeakable tragedy. Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the verge of a break-up when the unthinkable occurs – Dani’s sister takes her own life, as well as the lives of both her parents. Understandably, that impending break-up takes an abrupt back seat to getting Dani back on her feet, and after a few months she’s finally starting to feel like herself again. Christian, meanwhile, is quite clearly looking for a way out, booking an extended trip to Sweden with his friends and conveniently neglecting to tell Dani about it. Dani’s upset when she learns about this trip, confused why Christian wouldn’t have mentioned it, and so he does what every idiot boyfriend would do in that situation: rather than confront the already-shaky foundation their relationship is wobbling on, he invites her along, knowing full well that it won’t be pleasant for either of them. Dani agrees.
This entire trip’s been set up by Christian’s friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a Swedish native who also invites along Mark (Will Poulter, in full douchebag mode) and Josh (William Jackson Harper). They’ve all got different reasons for making the trip – Pelle wants to show off the once-every-90-years celebration currently being organized in his remote village; Mark’s looking to get laid; Josh is looking to write a thesis. Christian might’ve initially been using the trip as a means for putting some space between himself and Dani, but that goes right out the window the moment she agrees to tag along. For them, this trip is now entirely about taking a last-ditch effort at keeping their relationship from imploding. From the very beginning, it doesn’t look good.
And then, of course, things get worse. The group takes shrooms and Dani gets disoriented. The sun never sets. Within two days of arriving in Pelle’s village, the crew witnesses a local ritual that shakes them to their very cores. And on top of all that, loyalties and friendships within the group are being tested in a number of very dangerous ways – from forces both internal and external. It doesn’t take long before things get bloody, and from that point on it’s basically…well, it’s a gnarly horror movie. Even if you haven’t spent much time exploring folk horror, you can probably see where all of this is headed.
This isn’t to say Midsommar is without its surprises. Seeing this movie’s pieces fall into place is very satisfying (even when you’ve kinda already figured out how X is gonna connect to Y), and there came a point about midway through the third act where I legitimately didn’t know what the movie was gonna do next. The folk horror iconography Aster’s playing with here isn’t new, and the major beats of the break-up storyline won’t set anyone’s world aflame, but things do eventually get surreal in an unpredictable way, and some of the kills are admirably nasty (gentle reminder: Ari Aster is not afraid to smash cut to a gory close-up).
Which I suppose brings us to the question on everyone’s mind: is Midsommar as scary as Hereditary? This is a bad question, but I’ll answer it, anyway: as we all learned on his previous film, Ari Aster is not afraid to go dark. His talent for putting deeply upsetting imagery onscreen is commendable, and is used to great effect here. Midsommar contains several sequences that will, in no uncertain terms, fuck up an audience member who doesn’t watch a lot of horror movies. Hell, I probably plow through a handful of horror movies every week, and even I was unnerved. But was I scared? Eh, that’s a different matter altogether. I would call Midsommar many things before I’d call it scary – disturbing, creepy, gnarly, effective, upsetting or unnerving? Oh, absolutely. But scary? I’m not so sure. “Scary” is like “Funny” – only you know it when you see it. So how about we just set “Scary” aside and come at this from a different angle: if you’re wondering whether Midsommar will give you nightmares, the answer is probably yes.
Moving on: the performances here are across-the-board excellent. There’s not a weak link in the bunch, and Pugh turns in a fairly devastating performance. I admit to being wholly unfamiliar with her work prior to Midsommar, but I was super impressed with her work in this, and am eager to see more from her. As written, Dani could have easily come across as a doormat in the hands of a lesser actress, but Pugh invests the character with a not-quite-hard-edged dignity, and in the third act she makes some very difficult material look very easy. Reynor, meanwhile, sorta does the opposite, investing Christian with a cowardly sort of selfishness that always has him keeping one eye over the shoulder of whoever he’s talking to. Reynor’s good in the role and does what’s asked of him, but make no mistake – this is Pugh’s movie.
And what a fine looking movie it is. It’s nice to see horror playing out against broad, merciless daylight, and the attention paid to the film’s production design really cannot be overpraised. Everything in the movie looks slightly off, from the forest surrounding Pelle’s village to the vaguely threatening architecture of its buildings. There’s a bit of wonky CGI in there I wasn’t totally in love with, but Midsommar made it up to me with a number of super off-putting practical effects (Ari Aster fucking loves causing damage to heads), so I can live with it. We should also probably take a moment to applaud the film’s costume design, which takes some memorable turns as the film goes on. The whole thing looks great.
All in all, I liked Midsommar a lot. It doesn’t break the folk horror mold, and didn’t really frighten me in the traditional sense, but it’s a smoother ride than Aster’s previous film, showing growth on his part as a filmmaker and further cementing this director as a dude who can definitely be counted on to pull no punches. I’m very curious to see what he does next.