After breaking a lot of brains with last year’s horror hit, Hereditary, Ari Aster is back with his folk-horror, Midsommar. Florence Pugh stars as Dani, who travels to Sweden with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his university friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), and exchange student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), whose rural home/commune they are visiting for the locals’ midsummer festival. While seemingly idyllic at first, their holiday quickly falls into the unknown.
Much like Hereditary before it, Midsommar is a brutal, traumatic exploration of grief that holds nothing back. Very much influenced by its folk-horror predecessors, such as The Wicker Man (1973), Midsommar still finds new ways to explore this particular avenue of the horror genre. The members of Pelle’s commune are incredibly hospitable, welcoming Dani, Christian and their friends with open arms into their community. This hospitality, combined with the bright, technicolour, fairy tale-esque lighting are the like a spider’s web for character and viewer alike; throughout Midsommar, you will wonder where the expected, twist is going to come from, yet keep getting caught off-guard by the cult’s friendliness to these outsiders.
In this way, Midsommar excels at breaking the mould; other horror films might rely on building up a community like this as somewhat welcoming, with barely concealed, sinister undertones. Examples of this include Gareth Evans’ Apostle (2018) or the aforementioned Wicker Man. However, the commune, or cult, in Midsommar is far more genuine in their beliefs and hospitality. This allows the film to tease its creepiness out, further setting itself apart with its outright beautiful and bright cinematography, courtesy of Pawel Pogorzelski. This is a horror film that takes place almost entirely in the light of day (or midnight sun), presenting a creative challenge that, in itself, should be enough of a reason for horror fans to check this film out. Aster and his team succeed for the most part, allowing the sinister undertones of the commune’s pagan beliefs and traditions to carry the burden of fear.
From the outset, this is a film that quite happily partakes in hallucinogens (psilocybin). Aster & co. take delight in capturing these trippy visuals, with hands merging into the grass and trees shapes slightly shifting in the light. Creative camera movements and sound design work alongside the midnight sun to constantly bend reality, catching both character and viewer alike off-guard. Pogorzelski’s camera movements and framing capture the weird and wonderful environment of Pelle’s home, working in tandem with some interesting transitions from editor, Lucian Johnston. The film’s cast deserve credit for adding to the believability of these scenes, using body language and posture to convey their characters’ different reactions to the drugs at play. The actors playing Christian’s friends, a group of anthropology students, all give strong performances. Despite not being the focus of the film by any stretch, they working well with the limited material they are given, mostly avoiding any potential pigeonholing in the process.
Although it’s a folk-horror on the surface, Midsommar is, by Aster’s own admission, essentially a break-up film. Florence Pugh delivers a standout performance as Dani, conveying her character’s grief and trauma (and her attempts to cope with or suppress it) with devastating rawness. Likewise, Jack Reynor’s Christian is often frustrating, as the boyfriend who can’t work up the courage to break off the relationship. Throughout the film then, we witness this relationship crumbling, as the characters drift further and further apart. In exploring this, the film ends up taking its time, which does affect its pacing. The slower pacing adds to the build of tension throughout the film, although the film’s climax may not be as satisfying as some might viewers might prefer. In the end, this film can be a traumatic experience with some dark humour sprinkled throughout, all while remaining strongly aware of its predecessors in the folk-horror genre. Midsommar is a confident sophomore entry for Aster and considering his desire to turn away from horror, for the time being, I can’t wait to see what he does next.