Midsommar is the latest horror entry in A24’s catalog, as well as the second film written and directed by Ari Aster (Hereditary). It stars Florence Pugh (Fighting With My Family) as Dani, a young woman recently struck by a mountainous tragedy who ends up getting invited on a vacation to Sweden by her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), at the behest of his friends who are going with him. Not all of them are reluctant to extend the invitation, though, and as Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) claims, it could be good for her to get her mind off things. After all, they are going to his home village in Sweden for a 9-day festival that only happens once every 90 years; what could go wrong? Soon after arriving, however, things start to seem not quite right, and Dani begins to suspect something more sinister is afoot. The movie also stars William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), and Will Poulter (Maze Runner, Detroit).
Ari Aster proved himself a force to be reckoned with upon the release of Hereditary in the summer of last year, landing himself all the way up at the #3 spot on my Top 10 Films of 2018. The way he managed to simultaneously surpass and supplant our expectations for what a horror movie could be, re-writing rules on the fly (that road rush scene still sends chills down my spine), and somehow managing to weave in a dark tale about the demons we inherit from our parents, as well as how we handle grief of the most unimaginable variety. It’s fitting, then, that Aster’s sophomore feature swings almost entirely in the opposite direction, though it’s certainly not any worse for wear; Aster has yet again re-invented the horror film, with a slow-burn psychedelic nightmare that can only be described as being tenderly held by a monster from the darker depths of hell. It’s a mesmerizing watch, pulling you in and fixing you into a trance so that you’re unable to look away even while you know that what’s coming will unnerve you to your core. Somehow, some way, Aster forces you to want to stay in this wondrously unsettling world, just “off” enough from the rest of the world that your curiosity becomes the enemy as you discover the atrocities that lie ahead. Apart from that, it’s difficult to describe just what this movie is without delving into some minor plot spoilers here and there, but suffice to say, when an entire genre is re-invented in this fashion, it has to be seen, witnessed, and experienced for you to know just what I’m talking about.
One of the way Aster manages to pull off this re-invention is by setting the festival in a place where it never gets dark. Every bit of the horror on screen happens in broad daylight, and far enough into the movie, it begins to become rather disquieting. Even the single shot of darker sky we get to see is more of a light dusk than a true nightfall, and in a two and a half hour movie, that shot is meant to feel like a reprieve from everything we’ve experienced thus far, only for the movie to pull the rug out from under us once again in the very next moments. And yes, you read that right, this movie is two and a half hours long. Aster is not interested in just rushing you straight to the horror elements of this film because he knows how important it is to establish who these characters are first, and he takes his sweet time setting up their respective dynamics with each other and when they’re alone.
This is also evidenced by the way DP Pawel Pogorzelski moves his camera across the Swedish landscapes, with the characters always right where they need to be in the frame once that movement stops. There is no shot in this movie that doesn’t feel calculated, deliberate, and scrutinized over for hours on end. In fact, it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to say that this very well could be one of A24’s best-looking movies ever, and considering the pedigree of the studio, as well as the level of talent they frequently work with, that’s an extremely high bar to clear. This doesn’t only extend to the cinematography either. Truly, the entire design of the film is masterful, particularly upon arrival in Sweden, the symmetry of certain buildings and colors of flowers or drinks made unsettling by just how symmetric or beautiful they are; it’s a world and place you can’t help but suspect bad things from because of how perfect it appears, and pulling that off from a production design perspective is a remarkable feat.
Yet another way Midsommar gets under your skin is through its score, composed by a British group known as The Haxan Cloak. A24’s horror scores have always been top-notch (I’m particularly partial to the one from The Witch), but this is a whole other level. As the camera moves across whole fields of ritualistic practice and horrifying imagery, the music begins to drown out all other sound, and had it not been for my fixation on what might be about to happen, the sensation of listening to it paired with those images might have been too overwhelming for my senses. This is easily one of horror’s best scores yet, and I’ll be watching closely for the next time The Haxan Cloak decides to take on another composing job.
All of this is to say nothing of the performances, which are fantastic across the board. Aster has proven himself to be able to direct great turns from actors who are both veterans and novices in this business (it wasn’t that long ago that people were campaigning for Toni Collette to get a Best Actress nomination for Hereditary), and Midsommar is no exception to that rule. Florence Pugh is a revelation in this movie, channeling enough raw grief in her occasional cries of anguish to carry the world’s burdens all on her own, weighted with the sins of others who constantly rope her in to their madness and mayhem. It’s a truly stunning turn for the lead actress, and if there is any justice in the world, she will be just as lauded for this role as Toni Collette was for hers. It may not be as showy as that latter actress’s Hereditary turn, but it’s nonetheless impressive. William Jackson Harper is also great in the movie. It can be difficult to separate him from his scene-stealing Chidi character in NBC’s The Good Place, but Harper does a more-than-adequate job of playing something new here, getting to showcase more of his dramatic chops in the process. I really hope he gets more feature work after Good Place wraps its fourth and final season, cause I have a feeling we’ve barely scratched the surface of what this guy can do. As well, it’s good to see Will Poulter continue to grow in his range as a performer, with roles like his in Detroit and this movie making him into a somewhat terrifying specter of just-under-the-surface madness.
The most surprising performance of them all, though, comes courtesy of Jack Reynor (Sing Street, On the Basis of Sex), who’s turn as more than likely the biggest dick of a boyfriend since Calvin in Titanic sticks out from the pack as one that will be a career-turning point for him. Reynor is so genuinely unlikable in this movie that I wanted to jump through the screen and punch him in the face myself, and the way he carries that performance throughout the entire film is a magnificently frustrating thing to see. If he continues breaking out of shells to do stuff like this, he’s going to have an extremely long and well-received career.
Despite all its greatness, though, this is not a perfect movie, and it does have one or two flaws that, while relatively minor, do stick out upon reflection and might bother some people. Firstly (without going into spoilers), whole characters are just dropped and not heard from again, which isn’t unusual for a horror movie, but we never find out what happened to them either. It’s not detrimental, but I caught myself outside the theater asking myself what happened to certain characters we never got back to after their disappearances. I’m not really sure what the film is about either, if it’s about anything more than dumping one’s shitty boyfriend before it’s too late. The commentary seems to be focused on communication (specifically, bulldozing), but with the way the film plays out, it’s unclear if that’s just the B-story or if it’s meant to be the point of it all. As well, the film is very long and can feel like it’s dragging a bit at times. I suppose that’s not so much a flaw as it is an observation. It’s not to say the slow burn isn’t appreciated or noticed for what it is, but again, the film is two and a half hours long; it’s an investment, which can be beneficial, but might have some people asking “when are we going to get to more of the horror stuff?” Just figured I’d let you guys know going in.
Midsommar may not be the greatest horror film A24 has put out yet (that honor still goes to Hereditary), but it’s by far the greatest testament to why their horror films keep working as well as they do. They work with great talent to tell original stories and re-invent or re-invigorate entire genres of film, and this movie is the quintessential picture of that mission. Ari Aster has not just re-invigorated horror, he’s re-invented it with this movie, and the result is a startlingly beautiful, psychedelic, nightmare of a thing to see. The performances are all top-notch, the score and design of the film are great, and being tenderly held by this monstrosity is an experience I won’t soon forget. Aster has become one of my favorite new writers and directors working today, and I, for one, cannot wait for A24 to (potentially) pull this sort of thing off again with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse later this year.
I’m giving “Midsommar” an 8.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.