As horror debuts go, Ari Aster’s was pretty unforgettable. Hereditary emerged at the Sundance Film Festival last year and subsequently proved to be a box office success, as well as achieving the immediate honour of terrifying everyone who saw it. The intense tale of grief rotting a family unit from the inside out was a formidable horror story, and one that had fans on tenterhooks for Aster’s follow-up. Midsommar, as it turns out, is disarmingly different from its predecessor, while maintaining its ideas about the corrosive impact of bereavement.
Dani (Florence Pugh) is left devastated by the deaths of her family, rendered in a first act tableau so quietly horrible that the traumatic car ride in Hereditary suddenly looks like Aster was holding back. She seeks solace in the arms of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) who, unbeknownst to her, has serious doubts about their relationship. Out of awkwardness, Christian invites Dani to join him and his anthropology student friends at a midsummer festival taking place in a Swedish commune that was home to their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) when he was a child. They have no idea what to expect, but they’re willing to, as Christian puts it, “acclimate” to the world of their hosts.
To say more would do a disservice to what Aster has constructed here – a film that apparently lasts two and a half hours, but has such a disorientating effect that hours seem to warp into days and weeks within the confines of the cinema. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and the exceptional production design team deliver a setting that’s almost always filled with blinding, heavenly light – an Eden with more than a few evil apples lurking within it – so that night and day are entirely indivisible from each other. When the characters imbibe hallucinogenic mushrooms within the first hour, it’s less a harbinger of the doom to come than it is a quasi-comedic understatement. What follows is so much worse than just a bad trip.
Midsommar consistently defies convention, delivering a tone that impishly flirts with deadpan comedy to the point that it’s never quite clear whether Aster wants his audience to laugh or squirm. He almost certainly likes it that way. Disorientation is always the priority, whether it’s the matter of fact execution of a seemingly abhorrent ritual that segues from frank unshowiness to psychedelic nightmare as the characters’ worlds are altered forever or experimental musician The Haxan Cloak’s permanently in-flux score. Often, the most serene of tracks is subtly shifted to boast an ominous drumbeat or slightly off-kilter burst of strings to amplify the sheer discomfort of both character and audience. Aster’s objective detachment only serves to make the gory excess more shocking.
At the centre of it all is Florence Pugh, delivering yet another titanic central performance to conclude what could reasonably be called her breakout trilogy, with Lady Macbeth and Fighting With My Family forming the other parts. Aster frequently holds his camera tightly on her face, from an early scene in which emotional deceit plays palpably across her panicked eyes as she speaks on the phone to the inscrutable chaos of the savagely ambiguous final frames. She’s a woman broken down by grief and struggling to put her proverbial Humpty Dumpty back together into something, but it won’t be the same and will definitely still have a few cracks running through it. Jack Reynor and Will Poulter – the latter on comic relief duties – are solid, but it’s Pugh who’s given all of the room to bask in the ethereal glow of this Scandinavian nightmare.
Above all else, Midsommar is a movie about anxiety. The anxiety of grief and of guilt weighs heavily, along with anxiety of the unknown and the noxious, anguish-inducing paranoia brought on by all of the questionable substances. One shot lingers on the fluid in Christian’s drinking glass, ominously different from all of the others.
Characters are often framed as reflections in mirrors, as if rendered warped opposites of themselves by the upside-down morals and dreamlike welcome of the Technicolor commune, complete with porcelain-white gowns and rainbow-coloured flower garlands. Aster thrives when his audience is as off-balance as his characters, unable to anticipate his next upping of the ante.
In many ways the unhinged offspring of any number of ‘folk horror’ movies from old patriarch The Wicker Man through to the more recent The Witch and Ben Wheatley’s drug-addled A Field in England, Aster certainly works to make sure Midsommar is a unique, uncompromising vision all of its own. The storytelling is excruciatingly patient and Aster never seems in a visual or narrative hurry, even as the ritualistic shit hits the spooky Pagan fan. The camera flows and meanders as if being carried on a gust of wind, at one point arcing over a moving car until the image is upside down, leaving the characters unknowingly dangling above a seemingly infinite chasm of blinding white nothingness.
Much like Hereditary before it, Midsommar evolves and shifts into something different and chaotic for its final third and it’s encumbent on the audience to decide whether they are willing to drink the Kool Aid and dive into the unknown with it. This is a descent into the seventh circle of a very particular kind of hell – one designed by a malignant creator playfully twisting the knife into the guts of those skipping through his Eden, on both sides of the cinema screen.
Even when the odd brush stroke of Aster’s painting doesn’t quite feel like the right blend of colours, the finished creation is an unforgettable assault on his celluloid canvas.
Dir: Ari Aster
Scr: Ari Aster
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper
Prd: Patrik Andersson, Lars Knudsen
DOP: Pawel Pogorzelski
Music: The Haxan Cloak
Run time: 147 mins