Written and Directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe
In the films of Ari Aster, the word “family” does not evoke any sense of safety or comfort. In fact, family is much more synonymous with death and grief, with fragile ties barely holding everyone together. In the new Midsommar, a bright and beautiful nightmare, grief is our introduction. Dani (played by Florence Pugh) leaves unanswered messages to her parents, revealing concern for her sister who sends vague but distressing emails. This already informs us what sort of family dynamic we have. Dani attempts to find solace by calling her boyfriend Christian (played by Jack Reynor) whose lackadaisical replies don’t summon any sort of relief. After an unspeakable tragedy, Christian becomes the only family she has. This introduction is not terrifying in the way we anticipate a horror film being, mainly because it’s tapping into such real turmoil. Aster has mastered the ability to discomfort his audience with genuine pain up close and early on in the film so that our defenses are then just as low as his characters.
It is evident from the start that Christian and Dani’s relationship has been waning for some time, with him giving obligatory hugs and kisses when it’s clear to everyone around he wants out. His friends insist he needs to end it, that she needs a therapist more than a boyfriend. And, on top of that, they’re going to a Swedish festival in a couple weeks orchestrated by one of their friends Pelle (played by Vilhelm Blomgren). His friendly invitation is to experience one of his families’ traditions which happens every ninety years. Some of the friends (which include Josh played by William Jackson Harper and Mark played by Will Poulter) see this as an opportunity for grad school research while others an opportunity to get high and hit on Swedish girls. Christian begrudgingly invites Dani to come along, assuming she’ll say no even though she goes.
As hinted at in the trailers, this film is visually breathtaking and predominantly set in broad daylight, shot exquisitely by Pawel Pogorzelski. Aster displays a mastery behind the camera, with shots following characters upside down as we transition scenes. It’s a bold and unique move for Aster to aesthetically subvert horror expectations, with the first third of the film shrouded in dark, dimly lit rooms before opening us up to the vivid sunny landscape of Sweden where the danger awaits. Much like the festival itself, the wide exterior shots are welcoming until they are not, revealing how openly vulnerable everything is. At first glance we see people cheerfully frolicking and soaking up the rays of the sun while in the distance something unusual and potentially alarming is happening.
Throughout the duration of the film we, alongside the main characters, watch the rituals and traditions unfold and slowly intensify the more graphic they become, including an elderly couple taking their lives in one of the more brutal and violent scenes in the film. Witnessing this, Dani is immediately triggered and has to remove herself from the ritual. Her emotional state becomes more and more shaken, never truly helped by Christian’s half-hearted assurances. In an uncomfortably intimate scene, Pelle confesses to Dani that he lost his parents at an early age but benefited from the community acting as an adoptive family. Dani’s arms-length replies push her further and further into isolation, separating her not just from the locals but from her group of friends.
As people start to go missing, the remaining characters show reactions ranging from dumbfounded to completely apathetic. Some of the characterizations dip too far into caricatures, an inherent stumbling block that Aster never really overcomes though the ignorance of man (or in this case Americans) in a foreign land helps excuse some of the more eye-rolling decision making. Even as things get darker (thematically, certainly not literally) the characters are seldom able to differentiate what is cultural versus what is sinister. The one who acts the most rationally and we root for is Dani, though her instability only opens her up to be molded to the community’s liking.
Comparisons to cult films like The Wicker Man are undeniable, though it also covers a lot of the same ground as Aster’s feature debut Hereditary. Aster is not interested in the conventional horror that we’d see in other films, but rather the real-life horrors rooted in familial trauma. The protagonists in Hereditary and Midsommar are not just in mourning, they are overwhelmed by misery. It is in these sorrowful states that he mines horror that does not jump out at you but rather lingers and stirs in your thoughts until it births a nightmare. It is truly astonishing that A24 will release a film like this in the same theaters as Annabelle Comes Home when the two could not be more polar opposite.
An obvious difference between this and Hereditary is an injection of humor. For a film dripping with dread, Aster has some well-timed comedic beats sprinkled throughout, enough for us to laugh while our skin crawls. It can be tricky to use comedy in horror without compromising the tension but Aster shows a confident skill at blending the two.
One of the biggest highlights is the score by Bobby Krlic. As we arrive at the inevitable finale, the music is as cathartic as it is unnerving. Aster has described Midsommar as something akin to a fairy tale and the score supports that with an ethereal beauty contrasting what is happening on screen. For much of the film, we act similar to the characters, confused and unsure of what’s truly going on, allowing ourselves to become victims to the eventual terror that arrives. The final images of the film may be the ultimate amalgamation of emotions, the perfect coda after the ringer Aster has put us through. Here, we see Aster’s definition of family. — James Leggett