Ari Aster’s Midsommar takes place in a placid and very remote Swedish village during a festive solstice ritual held only once every 90 years. The celebrants are calm and welcoming, all decked out in elaborate Swedish frockery evocative of butter cookies and saffron buns. The setting is pastoral and bright – the sun doesn’t set for days at a time. It’s a legitimately welcoming place resembling a summer camp or even a quaint local theme park.Even when Midsommar plunges deeply into murderous intrigue – as audiences will instantly sense; no cheery isolated Swedish cult ever has benevolent intentions – one still can’t help but be allured by its bucolic surroundings. That’s an elaborate way of saying that Midsommar – like the director’s 2018 feature debut Hereditary – is a film that masterfully handles atmosphere, and that Aster is a legit new auteur in the horror community.
Both of Aster’s feature films to date have been languorous and meticulously crafted slow-burn horror films about real-life grief interrupted by encroaching, unexpected outerworld dread. Like Hereditary, Midsommar will shake you to the core. Both have also featured excellently hysterical performances from their lead actresses; Hereditary gave us one of Toni Collette’s best roles and Midsommar cements Florence Pugh as one of the most talented of her generation. Both films sadly also fall into similar traps regarding their blunt, frustratingly trope-heavy endings, but more on that in a moment.
Pugh plays Dani, a young woman who is in the middle of a bad long-term relationship with her inattentive and uncommunicative boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) when she receives horrifying family news; this harrowing ordeal is terrifyingly dramatized in the film’s first 15 minutes, so strap in for a rough ride. While under a cloud of aching sadness, Dani agrees – to her boyfriend’s not-so-well-disguised dismay – to accompany Christian and three of his buddies (William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, and Vilhelm Blomgren) to a very remote Swedish village in order to observe the local cult’s solstice ritual. Blomgren’s character hails from said community and Harper’s character is there to write a college thesis on it. Poulter’s character is there to display every bad habit of a bad American tourist. Christian is more or less grist for the mill, openly ignoring Dani, exacerbating her emotional isolation.
Because Midsommar begins with such a brutal emotional onslaught, the audience will never shake off the foreboding horror that we know to be waiting in the wings. Even when our protagonists are seemingly finding comfort or catharsis in the lingering Swedish sunlight, all surrounded by helpful smiles, flower garlands, and laughing children, we know that death will eventually interrupt. The mastery of the film is its ability to maintain its dread for as long as it does. At 140 minutes, Midsommar is determined to breathe.
Midsommar is clearly director Aster’s aesthetic tribute to folk horror, a long-standing subgenre that was briefly popular in the 1970s – the original The Wicker Man is the genre’s crown jewel – and seems to be having a renaissance with films like The Witch, November, and Hagazussa. Unfortunately, because of Aster’s open affection for something so well-worn (and perhaps well-known to horror fans), and his insistence on clinging to well-known horror formulas baked into the genre, Midsommar’s late-film revelations reduce much of the action to tropes and clichés. Like Hereditary, the literal explanation for the previously abstract dread leads the narrative down the path of obviousness. It makes explicit something that was more powerful in being implicit.
However, with both Hereditary and with Midsommar, the tip into blatancy isn’t enough to entirely offset the fear that has already crawled into the darker cracks of your brain. Midsommar understands fear, panic, and mourning, and it will gently overfeed you on the horror those things entail.