Synopsis – A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
My Take – Last year’s smash horror hit Hereditary was an absolute favorite of mine, hence I was keenly awaiting to see what writer/director Ari Aster would bring to the table in his sophomore effort. And as one would expect, this folk horror film has ended up attracting just as much critical acclaim.
Created from the same mold as Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) and other folk horrors, the sub-genre which peaked in the 1970s, mined fear, shock and schlock from fictional cultures that swerve away from mainstream civilization and often applied to the pagan variety of creep fest. Here, the film, in comparison to his debut, is a surprising far is a bigger and more ambitious effort with many gorgeous and graphic moments that also built its scares on the insidious machinations of a cult.
While one might expect the final product to look rushed, as it was put right into production shortly after the release of Hereditary, instead the film contains a deliberate, even sometimes slow pace to the epic (147 minutes) action, with long dialogue scenes, unnerving stretches of silence and beauties-of-nature sequences that should be lyrical and lovely, but rarely are, as everything is laced with themes of grief, trauma, and the occult.
Gorgeously shot and leisurely thoughtful, the film isn’t your conventional horror film, preferring to punctuate its consistently unsettling sense of unease with flashes of the horrific. This is a film that never looks away, even when you’re begging it to. You may love it, you may hate it, but it is worth experiencing at least once for its sumptuous difference.
The story follows Dani (Florence Pugh), an American psychology student who is grieving her entire family after her sister, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, kills herself and her parents by piping car exhaust into the sealed-off house at night.
To make matters worse, her relationship with her boyfriend, anthropology grad student Christian (Jack Reynor) is on shaky ground. He’s been wanting to leave her for a year, without mustering up the will to care enough to do it and now, he can’t, despite the encouragement from his fellow grad school friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).
In an effort to be supportive, Christian invites Dani on a trip with the guys to attend a midsummer folk festival in Pelle’s Swedish village. Turns out, Pelle’s village is more like a commune, essentially a cluster of four buildings nestled into a hidden valley. To get there, the group drives four hours from Stockholm, hikes through the woods, and finally emerges into the clearing through a wooden gate that resembles a sunburst.
Everyone in the community is tall and blond and Swedish, and for their annual “midsommar” celebrations, they’ve dressed in white, braided flower crowns, and prepared for nine days of rituals. At first, it seems like they’re in for a week of day-drinking and hallucinogenic drug trips, but as the time passes, ceremonies get more extreme, people start to disappear, and it begins to dawns on Dani that there may be something far darker at play in this serene field in the middle of nowhere.
This horror confirms one thing, director Ari Aster is a new kind of midnight-film maestro, who is using the genre to purge some very dark thoughts, as once again, he’s built a horror film on a bedrock of trauma. Aster, who claims to have written the film on the business end of a nasty breakup, structures the film like a kind of unholy relationship study, the same way Hereditary wrapped an anguished domestic drama in its supernatural shawl.
Stripped of its cult festival trappings, this is a breakup film, as seen through the prism of horror. It’s sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, which makes the darker moments even more troubling. In many ways, Hereditary, and his follow-up, are binary opposites.
While Hereditary examined the fears that lurk in the shadows, in the bones of our houses, and in the secrets we tell ourselves. While this one, on the other hand, takes place almost entirely outdoors, in a place where the sun never really sets. It’s a different kind of horror, a waking nightmare that pushes fears out in the open in a way that is deeply unsettling.
After its initial tragedy, the film spends so much time letting us dwell in the sunlit paradise of the village that we’ve almost forgotten we’re watching a horror film by the time the first jolt arrives. When it does, though, the film doesn’t let us forget again. It can’t be denied that director Aster knows how to hold a shot just long enough to create pinpricks of discomfort, to disorient with an abrupt cutaway, to drop stomachs with the godlike perch and glare of his camera.
And he recognizes the power of some sparingly deployed gore, there’s a sequence here, casual in its grotesque bodily injury that rivals Hereditary in the cruel shock department. The horror here isn’t really culled from conventional evil. There’s something about communal living that makes it a prime setting for horror. The horror stems from the clash of cultures, the appropriation of conventional morality to outwardly ghastly rituals that only reinforce the concept of community. This is what makes this one an exceptional film.
The entire film feels like a slow descent into frenzied, ritualized madness and you don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late to stop it. It puts to the fore the inconsistencies of modern-day world views and the many ideas it regards as virtues such as the supremacy of individual wants and needs over the communal body.
The film also ends up satisfying on multiple levels. The film’s very final frame emphasizes the truest escape from contemporary woes, where emotions are shared and an individual finally finds fulfillment and belonging amidst fire, pain and chaos.
However, I personally think the film isn’t for everyone. At 147 minutes, the actions does drag a little more than it should, especially in settling up and immersing the characters into the idyllic cult setting, a slow burn that’s in sharp contrast to how quickly Dani’s trauma unfolds in the opening minutes.
Fans of slick, jump-scare horror may be alienated by the film’s artiness in appearance and ambitions, as well as its leisurely pacing. The film could honestly have shaved 15 minutes off its 2-and-a-half hour running time.
What’s more, for a film that leans so heavily into literal symbolism, the film doesn’t really unpack some of the more complex ideas it’s presenting like the fact that the first to go missing are the sole people of color to visit the community. In any other film, I might chalk that up to a tiresome horror trope, but it does seem like director Aster is doing this deliberately. I just wish he’d be willing to make a bolder statement, rather than tiptoe around the edges.
Nevertheless, the film brings together some truly excellent acting talent. Led by a powerfully sympathetic Florence Pugh, who recently impressed in WWE biopic Fighting with My Family, gives one of her strongest performances to date. Her ritualized breathing and cries of anguish are almost synchronized with the score, an interplay that’s genuinely unsettling leading up to a dramatic finish.
While Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter make excellent cases for why they should be considered as upcoming Hollywood heavy weights. In supporting turns, Vilhelm Blomgren, Isabelle Grill, Ellora Torchia and Archie Madekwe add enough dramatic moments. On the whole, ‘Midsommar’ is a disturbing, ambitious, and unsettling colorful horror film that is both bizarre and beautiful.
Directed – Ari Aster
Rated – R
Run Time – 147 minutes