Review: Foreign Tension, Scary Familiarity in Sun-Drenched Midsommar
Back in January 2018, I attended the world premiere of writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary at the Sundance Film Festival, and I predicted that it was an early candidate for the best horror film of the year, a sentiment I believe turned out to be true. A mere year-and-a-half later, Aster returns with his follow-up, Midsommar, which on the surface seems miles away in content and tone from his previous work, if only because the filmmaker has injected some amount of dark humor into the proceedings. Hereditary was a film that was built upon darkness, while Midsommar is bathed in the oppressive sunlight of Sweden during the time of year where the sun rarely sets.
Yet both films share a love of odd ceremonies that get progressively more inappropriate as the story moves forward, the cumulative impact of a tension that builds almost imperceptibly until it’s taken over your body, and a soul-scorching lead performance (by Florence Pugh, most recently from Fighting With My Family, as well as Lady Macbeth and The Little Drummer Girl AMC series) that is both one of the best you’ll see this year and the reason for most of the bad that happens in the film. Aster is obsessed with a reality-based grotesque that is used by cults/communities/religions to warp the minds and bodies of outsiders in an effort to keep tradition alive and the cycle of life and death moving forward.
But Midsommar is also a commentary on the ugly American traveling abroad and criticizing everything that isn’t familiar, as is evidenced by the group of grad students who travel to the rural Swedish hometown of one of their own, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who is returning home for a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival. He invites his friends, including the resident asshole Mark (Will Poulter), who seems focused on meeting buxom foreign women; Josh (William Jackson Harper, who plays Chidi on NBC’s “The Good Place”); and Christian (Jack Reynor), who is on the verge of breaking up with girlfriend Dani (Pugh), who has just suffered a horrific tragedy in her family and needs to get away for a while. Save Pelle, none of the men really want Dani to come, since the trip was designed as a month-long guys vacation, but before anyone realizes what’s happening, she’s on the plane with them to a strange land.
At first, the lush landscapes and quaint accommodations seem quite inviting to the group, but after taking some powerful mushrooms and meeting a few of the locals (most of whom are Pelle’s extended family), the rhythm and vibe of the village begins to take on an unreliable quality in terms of the perception of time and what is real and what is dreamed or imagined on hallucinogens. The layout of the community seems very deliberate and structured, and while the Americans simply want the freedom to roam as they wish, this isn’t always allowed. After witnessing a rather horrific ceremony involving the two oldest members of the community, both Josh and Christian decide that they want to write their theses on the community and its traditions, as if these people were subjects instead of human beings.
But before long, the villagers go from being the observed to the observers, and they start guiding the actions and behaviors of the outsiders. Dani is pushed into the company of many of the local women, while Christian catches the eye of one of the local girls, Maja (Isabelle Grill), who seems to cast some rather unsavory spells so she can bed him. There are other outsiders in the group as well who arrived on their own, and many of them simply vanish as the story progresses, sometimes with no explanation, other times with a vague inference that they simply left or wandered off. For a time, these strange occurrences are explained away quite believably but after exhaustion sets in and the concept of reality begins to evaporate, people stop asking where everyone else has gone. Before long the ceremonies of the festival seem less about bonding the community and celebrating heritage and more about a competition that involves a great number of quite terrible and bloody practices.
Of course I’ve seen The Wicker Man (both versions), and it’s clear that the filmmaker has as well. But anyone who tells you that Midsommar is simply Aster’s update of the cult hit(s) is being a bit lazy. The Wicker Man is goofy and outrageous, but I don’t think it ever crosses into the realm of fear and desperation, certainly not in the way this film does. Also, the things Aster is saying about toxic relationships—especially the way men treat women they’re basically done with but haven’t quite gotten around to the break-up part of the relationship—could fill volumes, and that’s what makes this film astonishing in its emotional scope as well as its vision. The movie can be unpleasant as a horrific tale (not quite a pure horror movie), but it’s watching this couple’s final days caring for one another that is the real gauntlet that we must pass through to get to the payoff, which is beyond worth it.
Some may think the film goes too far off the tracks in its second half, but I found that it’s in those absurd and sometimes confusing moments that Midsommar found its footing—albeit on shaky ground. Hereditary is built on horror; Midsommar is built on a far more personal hell. One is scary because it’s about the unknown, while the latter fills us with anxiety because it feels entirely familiar. Either way, you win.
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