Film Review: Midsommar
Skål! Raise a Glass to a New Master of Horror
Midsommar, a harrowing tale of grief steeped in uncomfortable folk horror, is a confident and gut-wrenching sophomore effort from director Ari Aster. With his second feature-length film, Aster proves that Hereditary was no fluke, and solidifies himself as a new master of squirm-inducing terror. Florence Pugh absolutely owns the role of Dani Ardor with a breathtaking performance, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski directs some of the most beautifully disturbing imagery seen in cinema this year. Minor spoilers ahead…
“You know what Freud said about the nature of horror? He says it’s when the home becomes unhomelike. ‘Unheimlich.’ And that’s what this place has become…”
Before his feature-film debut with last year’s Hereditary (which was my favorite film of 2018), director Ari Aster made a name for himself in the short film circuit. The quote above is from C’est La Vie, a 2016 short from his Portrait Series (which you can watch here). C’est La Vie isn’t a horror short, but rather, an incisive and scathing takedown of society from the perspective of a homeless drug addict. And while Aster’s seven-minute-plus social commentary contrasts greatly with his later filmography in both tone and genre, it underlines a resonant motif that will eventually anchor both Hereditary and Midsommar: ghosts, demons, and violent cults are horrifying, but nothing can ever compare to the trauma capable by human hands, especially the hands of those closest to us.
On a surface level, Midsommar couldn’t be more different from Hereditary. Where Hereditary is a masterful riff on haunts and demonic possessions, with its darkest secrets hidden within shadows and crevices, Midsommar - as other publications have dubbed it - is a “sun-soaked nightmare” steeped within the waters of folk horror. However, if you delve a little deeper than their differing methodologies, you will find that Hereditary and Midsommar are very much birds of a feather - namely, harrowing meditations on grief and trauma. Aster turns everyday living on its head, and with both of his films, he offers up catharsis via grotesque apotheosis. Where Hereditary is family drama distilled to its most horrifying core, Midsommar - in Aster’s own words - is a breakup movie in the same vein.
“Aster turns everyday living on its head, and with both of his films, he offers up catharsis via grotesque apotheosis.”
The film centers around Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh, masterfully doing for Midsommar what Toni Collette did for Hereditary) and her lackluster relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Forgoing the archetypical shitty boyfriend tropes of Hollywood, Christian embodies a pedestrian awfulness - lazy, aimless, and particularly spineless when it comes to communication, he's constantly goaded by his friends to call it quits with Dani. However, just as Christian is about to pull the plug on the relationship, Dani suffers a soul-shattering tragedy that understandably derails the breakup. The relationship persists, but so does the awkward tension, further exacerbated when Dani invites herself on an overseas trip arranged by the guys to visit the ancestral village of their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Quickly shifting gears from the wintry mix of the States to the sunlit idyll of Hälsingland, Midsommar plunges into the foreign customs of the local people, the Hårga, celebrating their midsummer traditions and a secretive festival that only takes place once every 90 years.
An expert at weaponizing dread, Aster deploys an entirely different toolset than he did for Hereditary, delivering shocks in broad daylight and away from the confines of shadows and dark corners. Midsommar also traffics in a different brand of terror - a slow-burn creep rather than adrenaline-fueled jolts. A lingering camera here, a dollop of gore there, every meticulous detail of the film contributes to a singular focus: not to scare, but to disturb and discombobulate. There isn’t a single aspect of Midsommar that isn’t deliberate, and as a testament to Aster’s world-building abilities, the Hårga are a fully lived-in people with their own rituals, demeanor, and aesthetic. The film’s harrowing State-side opening act tips its hand, but the narrative camouflages its sinister intent under the foreignness of Scandinavian tradition, and by the time the first big reveal rolls around, it’s too late - for both the characters and the audience. It’s also worth noting that no one portrays death quite like Ari Aster; with a notable absence of Hollywood veneer, his depictions of death and decay offer a disturbing verisimilitude unlike anything you’ve seen in film. Whether it’s a chewed up severed head in Hereditary, or the bloated and sun-bleached cadavers of Midsommar, Aster’s grip on the macabre is unflinching.
It’s not an Ari Aster film without a riveting performance, and Midsommar more than delivers on that front with Florence Pugh; one could even argue that the film peaks early. Through his easy-going nature and genial interviews, it’s difficult to imagine Aster as a demanding taskmaster of any kind, but there’s something undeniably Kubrick-ian about Pugh’s soul-crushing wails of grief in the film’s opening salvo. It’s the closest thing there is to a thespian paradox: as gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch as it is mesmerizing. Pugh’s performance as Dani also envelops the entire film, and at times casts a shadow over her supporting cast. While Jack Reynor isn’t peddling in stereotypes, his character, Christian, is a bit of a vanilla cad relegated to being the audience hate-object. Will Poulter provides most of the film’s laughs, but aside from some humorous cultural misunderstandings, there’s not much more to the character than being the resident jackass.
Hereditary is a film steeped in visual style, but Midsommar is the one to really stand out in terms of its cinematic identity. Longtime collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski once again assumes cinematographer duties, as he’s done for much of Ari Aster’s filmography, and it’s easy to categorize the film as gorgeous. Seamlessly weightless in his movements, yet beautifully deliberate, Pogorzelski pulls off some breathtaking shots. His mastery behind the lens also gives life to Hälsingland, a setting that almost becomes a character of its own with its colorful structures and symmetries reminiscent of a twisted Wes Anderson.
Midsommar is a superbly confident sophomore effort by Ari Aster. While it may not be as clear in its intent as Hereditary, it completes a brutalizing diptych that solidifies its director’s horror chops. Searing in its imagery and bracing in Florence Pugh’s incredible performance, Midsommar strikes a much needed win for original stories, especially in a 2019 dominated by franchises and blockbusters.