In many ways, Ari Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary, and his upcoming follow-up, Midsommar, are binary opposites. Hereditary examined the fears that lurk in the shadows, in the bones of our houses, and in the secrets we tell ourselves. (I still check my ceiling for Toni Colette, nightly.) Midsommar, on the other hand, takes place almost entirely outdoors, in a place where the sun never 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. But both films get at a similar theme: Often, the scariest horrors aren’t supernatural, but ones that lie within ourselves, and those around us.
Florence Pugh plays Dani, an American psychology student who has just experienced a devastating loss. 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. In an effort to be supportive, Christian invites Dani on a trip with the guys — exchange student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), borderline incel, forever vaping Mark (Will Poulter), and fellow anthropologist Josh (William Jackson Harper) — to attend a midsummer folk festival in Pelle’s Swedish commune hometown.
At first, it seems like they’re in for a week of day-drinking and hallucinogenic drug trips, clad in breezy white linen and flower crowns. But as time passes, ceremonies get more extreme, people start to disappear, and it dawns on Dani and the group that there may be something far darker at play in this serene field in the middle of nowhere.
There’s something about communal living that makes it a prime setting for horror. The hive mind is a potent element of any cult, and Midsommar indoctrinates us, the audience, along with its characters. The entire film feels like a slow descent into frenzied, ritualized madness — you don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late to stop it.
And yet, there were clues all along. Aster plants eerie symbols and glyphs — which, despite their beauty and colour, telegraph a deep sense of unease — skillfully captured by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski. Pagan rituals celebrating fertility and the life cycle are depicted throughout, and like so many things that can trace their origins back to the early days of civilization, there’s a brutal, violent stain beneath the veneer of rebirth.
Hereditary was groundbreaking in its approach to the more conventional horror genre. Midsommar feels even more ambitious, both in its construction and the ideas Aster is trying to convey. The two work in tandem: At some point during a particularly woozy feast, the camera blurs the background into a swirl of colours, Bobby Krlic’s spine-chilling score swells, and we’re lost in this sensorial assault of fertility, decay and human feeling that threatens to swallow the characters whole. One flower on Dani’s flower crown blooms and frays over and over again, mimicking the life cycle so central to the film. The costumes, courtesy of Andrea Flesch, are particularly striking — each article of clothing, down to the shoes, boasts an individual runic symbol, contributing to the aura of established, mythologized community. One dress, in particular, is bound to show up at every Halloween party next year.
At 140 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. What’s more, for a film that leans so heavily into literal symbolism, Midsommar 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 colour to visit the community. In any other film, I might chalk that up to a tiresome horror trope, but it does seem like Aster is doing this deliberately. I just wish he’d be willing to make a bolder statement, rather than tiptoe around the edges.
Pugh, who has been insanely prolific over the last two years, gives one of her strongest performances to date. You can literally see the grief starting to engulf Dani from the inside out, craving a form of release that she can only get at the expense of others. 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. As for Reynor, he makes a genuine case to be considered for Hollywood Chris-dom (his character’s name is Christian, after all), delivering lines with clueless, endearing humour that gives him depth beyond the simple label of “bad boyfriend.”
It’s refreshing to see a movie about a fertility ritual focus overwhelmingly on male nudity. (Reynor, Poulter, and Archie Madekwe, who plays British tourist Simon, all go full-frontal. Watch out, Chris Peen!) There’s something undeniably matriarchal about this commune. Women choose their mates, not the other way around, and the climax of the festival is the choosing of the May Queen, who then holds sway over the final, devastating ceremony.
Stripped of its cult festival trappings, Midsommar is a breakup movie, as seen through the prism of horror. It’s sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, which makes the darker moments even more troubling. We, the community watching this film, are complicit in these people’s pain. (Emotional and physical! Prepare for some blood!) It’s the kind of movie that burrows deep into your psyche, haunting you for days afterward. But at least there’s no clucking.