Like Hereditary, Ari Aster’s feature debut, death casts a shadow over Midsommar. I’m not talking about the typical death in horror, where its grisly context and circumstances are the focus. Aster’s sense of mortality is recognizably human: his characters grieve in extreme, relatable ways. It is unclear whether this is Aster’s cynical way of upping the stakes of his film, or just the way his mind works, but Midsommar’s emotional realism is important since what ultimately happens is so unseemly and appalling. If Hereditary is the scarier film, then this one is far more disturbing.
Florence Pugh plays Dani, a graduate student reeling from a family tragedy. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is no position to help: they are in their twenties, and he lacks the emotional maturity to provide support, or the wisdom to end the relationship. Christian’s “solution” for Dani immediately alienates him from his friends. An anthropology grad student named Josh (William Jackson Harper) plans to attend a commune’s midsummer festival in Sweden, so Christian/Dani are tagging along with Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). The Swedish commune leads to some Fish out of Water comedy, except its odd rituals break through the defenses of Dani, Christian, and the others. They find themselves in some truly terrifying situations, unsure how they ever got there.
What makes Midsommar so effective is how Aster takes his time with his characters. They are not merely meat sacks that are there for a body count, but plausible individuals who are governed by plausible desires. Josh is the closest thing this movie has to a voice of reason, and yet his fascination with the commune blinds him to what’s really happening. Mark is the goofball, primarily concerned with getting high and getting laid, and his detachment from the commune puts him in a risky position. Through all this is Pugh, who gives a star-making performance as Dani. She is not merely grieving, but a young woman full of raw emotion, intelligence, and well-honed skepticism. The commune provides her flashes of joy, and all they require in return is a surrender of self. Pugh sells that arc by committing to a role full of suffering, both when she is utterly alone, or surrounded by others.
Aster presents all this action, including nightmare scenes and solemn rituals, with a dreamy sense of time. This is Sweden around the summer solstice, so there are only a few hours of darkness, and all the characters wander through the languid, sunny days in a slight, insomnia-fueled stupor. Perhaps they are too trusting, and yet part of the delight is how Aster shifts the commune’s open, friendly residents into something more sinister.
There is not a lot of gore in Midsommar, and that is because Aster internalizes how escalation is important to the folk horror subgenre. He builds toward transgressive material, so the film’s anxiety is how he will do it. A surreal sequence at the halfway point sets up what follows: there is a tradition where the commune parts ways with their elders, and it has a sense of finality that outsiders are not ready to handle. The immediate aftermath is a study in the clash between morality and deference: Christian is moved by what he sees, while others see no alternative but to leave immediately. Aster uses camera placement and slow motion to ease us into this mindset, and he never dwells on violent imagery longer than he needs.
This is a long film, but Aster uses that runtime to achieve his intended effect. The outsider characters sound recognizably modern, speaking with smart shorthand that would fit into an indie romantic comedy. The arc of the film is how Dani and the others succumb to the commune, and telling that story means that Aster cannot rush. Another important detail is the use of drugs and alcohol. Recreational drug use leads to overwhelming weakness, and the film’s horror is in how outsiders falls victim to suggestion. All this culminates in a lengthy sequence that juxtaposes beauty, ugliness, eroticism, and terror. One character finds themselves in a truly vulnerable place, and part of Midsommar’s power is how that ties to the frayed relationships that define the opening stretch.
Aster is not a subtle filmmaker. He wants his audience to identify with these flawed people, even as they make one mistake after another. There is a strange mix of psychological insight and horror tropes that strip away specificity for something more primal, more allegorical. Midsommar ends with an enigmatic facial expression, the sort that is frequently deployed and rarely earned. The context of his nonverbal acting still sends a shiver down my spine because of how it aligns multiple threads, without being too obvious about it. Many lines of morality and good taste are crossed in this film, and grim twists happen when the characters finally submit themselves to their fate. The lack of choice is its own grotesque reward.