Updated: Feb 9, 2020
In 2018, writer/director Ari Aster burst onto the scene with the disturbing Hereditary. The story, about a family haunted by secrets as they grieve the death of their matriarch, was good, but it was the filmmaking that made it truly memorable. Aster brings that same skill to his second feature, the very creepy Midsommar. This time around, the path of his story is much more obvious, as are the themes. Yet it is no less unnerving. The plot is comparatively simple. That is how it gets under the skin so easily. He does not make traditional horror. There are no jump scares or elaborate death scenes. His movies grab hold of viewers in a different way, filling them with dread all the way until the end.
Dani and Christian are in an unhealthy relationship. She is committed, while he feels overburdened by her emotional needs. After she suffers a personal tragedy, he reluctantly invites her along on a trip he and his friends, Josh, Mark and Pelle, are taking to Sweden. Pelle takes them to the small village where he grew up so they can witness the mid-summer festival, which occurs only once every ninety years. Soon, the rituals take a dark turn and the Americans find themselves in over their heads.
The two easiest ways horror can get to me are through the unknown or the inevitable. Midsommar (142 minutes, minus the end credits) mostly uses the latter approach. Aster does not hide what he has planned for his characters. The villagers have tapestries and murals depicting some of their rituals. Viewers paying close attention may be able to predict certain events before they happen. That does not release the tension. For me, anyway, it added to it. These people, once entering the festival, have sealed their fates. We know bad things are going to happen and nothing can be done to avoid them.
A key to this is the villagers are not particularly villainous. They do not plot or manipulate. They are not portrayed as sinister. This is just their culture. Most of the story takes place outside in the open fields, where the sun almost never goes down. However, even when inside, doors are rarely closed. Everything is bathed in the nearly constant sunlight. This implies a certain amount of transparency. Usually in these types of movies, terror happens in the dark. Here, the characters can always see it, even if they do not quite know what they are looking at.
The three main male characters are not deep, though they achieve exactly what is needed. Josh, played effectively by William Jackson Harper, is the academic. The whole reason they are on this trip is so he can study other cultures. He has an arrogant entitlement to him. Mark is a version of the ugly American who just wants to get high and meet beautiful women. Will Poulter is fittingly obnoxious in the role and also supplies some very welcome humor. As Christian, Jack Reynor is the guy too afraid to actually do something to get out of the relationship he no longer wants to be in. He has the selfishness of someone who believes he is being caring while he neglects his girlfriend or passively shames her for her emotions.
The toughest, and most impressive, performance comes from Florence Pugh as Dani. She is the audience’s entry point into this world. She is haunted by guilt, ashamed of how much she needs Christian and aware the guys probably did not want her to come on the trip. They mostly shrug off what they are experiencing, but she almost immediately realizes there is something strange going on. Similar to Toni Collette in Hereditary, Pugh throws herself completely into the role. Her arc is what gives the story its purpose. There is no way it would have affected me the way it did without her. Aster depends on Pugh the way Dani tries to depend on Christian. The drama takes place inside her, so he uses close-ups as well as long takes to watch her. Her reactions are clear at first, then become more complex as events unfold. The final close-up of Dani, which resolves the movie’s themes, is at once both liberating and terrifying.
Midsommar is the type of movie fascinating less for what it does and more for how it does it. I could go on for thousands of words about Aster’s shot compositions or his use of longer takes (the average shot length of the typical American film is around 2.5 seconds; Midsommar’s is likely much higher). Telling a story is less interesting to him than getting across the feeling of that story. Midsommar is not for everyone. It is long, slow and intentionally confusing. Yet it is an unsettling telling of a relationship falling apart and a young woman discovering her own needs. The closing moments do not have the impact of the revelations at the end of Hereditary, but they make their mark all the same. His first film announced Ari Aster as a filmmaker on the rise; his second proves he is already there.
4¼ out of 5
Florence Pugh as Dani
Jack Reynor as Christian
William Jackson Harper as Josh
Will Poulter as Mark
Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle
Written and Directed by Ari Aster