Directed by: Ari Aster
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren
Sometimes a couple just needs to break up. We’ve all seen those couples, who are together only because they don’t want to be alone or start over with another person. The finality of severing that relationship may need a breaking point to open that cracking dam. In this case, the inciting incident happens to be a midsummer celebration.
Stricken with grief after the death of her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) attempts to seek solace from her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who seems to only comfort her out of obligation. Their relationship becomes icy and when Dani hears that Christian plans to travel to Sweden with his friends, he agrees to take her along out of guilt. The trip to Sweden involves attending a midsummer festival that happens once every 90 years and they have no idea what they are set to encounter.
As with any horror film put out by A24, it’s wrong to assume that it will be like any other mainstream horror production out in theaters. Typically, these films possess a more atmospheric vibe and play by their own rules. The advertising appeared deceptive just like for The Witch and Ari Aster’s debut, Hereditary. This sophomore effort by Aster has its vicious and horrifying imagery, but the narrative follows more of a relationship drama between Dani and Christian. Mixing that storyline with all of the madness happening at the festival creates an incredible and hallucinogenic experience.
The true horror of Midsommar comes from the way it’s shot, which occurs mostly during the day. With a typical horror film, all of the scary moments that contain the jump scares and creepy imagery occur at night with daylight providing the much-needed respite. This film doesn’t provide a break or time to feel relief and the continuous tension makes it so effective. On the outside, everything seems like a great time with everyone being welcoming, by providing shelter, food, and acceptance to the summerly tradition. However, an underlying feeling continually reverberates that something odd might be going on and that the protagonists may be in some sort of danger. Not only do the horrors happen in broad daylight, but everyone at this commune has a smile and a jovial spirit because everything that occurs is simply tradition for them.
Thematically, this film contains such rich material and each of the characters brings something towards the overall meaning of the story. Along with Dani and Christian, there’s Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter). Josh’s purpose for attending the festival focuses on completing his thesis, which will be about the commune and this celebration, while Mark wants to be there just to take hallucinogens and have a good time with the ladies. Each of their actions throughout their time in the commune shows a different way of how Americans traveling abroad are the worst. With Josh trying to use the culture for his own gain and Mark having complete disregard for any of the traditions to the point where he literally unknowingly urinates on a sacred object. Those two are the worst. They all received invitations to the commune by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up there and wanted his friends to experience the celebration.
The relationship between Dani and Christian serves as the focal point and Aster brilliantly captures their feeble relationship. His use of mirrors and reflections shows their separation and while physically they may be near each other, emotionally they are much further apart. Christian does not want to end the relationship because of the inconvenience and because he doesn’t want to be the guy to dump a girl shortly after her family died. The lack of connection becomes palpable and creates a dreadful cringeworthy feeling, in a good way. Dani doesn’t need much from Christian except to help her through the pain and instead of receiving it from her partner, she starts to feel it from the seductive commune.
The performance by Florence Pugh personifies perfection with the range of emotions she needs to process throughout this story. The big moment, of course, as shown in all of the marketing happens when she screams from the pain and sadness and other members of the commune join in on the emotion. Such a visceral scene that would not work if the audience could not connect to Dani and her plight throughout the runtime of the film. Pugh lets all of the emotions flow through her and does so much with her face to let the audience know her thoughts and feelings. 2019 has been an incredible year for her and she can only get better from here.
Ari Aster continues to prove to be an innovative and fresh voice in the world of horror filmmaking. An honest critique of his work lies in the lack of originality with Hereditary having many similarities to Rosemary’s Baby and now this film feeling similar to The Wicker Man. Fair to state, but he surely makes up for it with the sense of dread he seems to create effortlessly. Midsommar never provides an opportunity to feel safe or truly understand everything that is happening in the story. One of the major elements of the story revolves around the hallucinogenic drugs consumed by the travelers and how that impacts their experience. The film has the opportunity to allow many of the horrifying imagery to be reduced to those drugs, but Aster ensures that everything happening is real and incredibly unsettling.
Going strong with 147 minutes, there are a plethora of traditions and facts that go along with the celebration that remains a mystery to the audience. Midsommar has imagery that alludes to everything that will occur and in retrospect, it seems all the more horrifying. It’s an excellent piece of art that boasts incredible cinematography and fabulous production design with the capability of engrossing audience members into the experience.