In 2018, writer-director Ari Aster set the horror community afire with Hereditary. Equal parts cult thriller and grief-fueled melodrama, Aster’s debut feature was widely considered one of the best horror titles of the year and a calling card from the next great genre filmmaker. Even those who, like myself, found little to enjoy in Hereditary had to admit that Aster’s natural blend of arthouse and grindhouse made him someone worth watching. And if a second feature is often heralded as the difference between a one-hit wonder and a star on the rise, then Midsommar is pretty irrefutable proof that Aster could indeed live up to the intense praise heaped on his shoulders.
Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) know their relationship is coming to an end. Christian spends his evenings smoking pot and waxing indecisive about his level of commitment with his friends; Dani, already burdened by her family’s mental health issues, spends hours on the phone with her friends wondering if she’s inadvertently pushing her boyfriend away. Then an unthinkable tragedy happens, putting off difficult conversations as she clings to Christian for emotional support. What might’ve been a painful-but-necessary breakup becomes a prolonged relationship with no easy exits.
A few months later, Dani emerges from her cocoon of grief to learn that Christian is headed to Sweden at the behest of their mutual friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Together with fellow graduate student Josh (William Jackson Harper), Christian hopes to check out the annual midsummer festival of Pelle’s hometown, and he extends an invitation, mostly out of pity, for Dani to join them. Before long, the group finds themselves standing in the fields of Pelle’s village, slowly initiated into the centuries-old traditions of the townsfolk. The longer they stay — and the more psychotropic drugs they cheerfully ingest — the more the customs begin to take on a sinister air.
The key to Midsommar is in its opening minutes. While Aster’s film has been viewed as an exploration of grief, the goal here is to do something more complicated. This narrative is meant to exist in two separate worlds, one the colorless winter wasteland of the film’s opening minutes and the other the cheerful primary colors of the Swedish village. Given the different rules that drive each setting, it’s not surprising that Aster has described his film as “a Wizard of Oz for perverts.” The filmmaker could not have driven home the divide between reality and fantasy any more effectively than if he’d filmed the entire opening sequence in black and white. And much like in Victor Fleming’s classic musical film, here Dani’s emotional baggage is often projected onto her companions, becoming an essential part of their individual character arcs.
This, understandably, puts a lot of pressure on Pugh to shoulder Aster’s ambitious storytelling. Dani clings to Christian as a means of stability; many of the film’s darkest scenes involve her quietly downplaying her trauma to ensure that her presence does not ruin Christian’s vacation with his friends. It’s okay, she tells herself, that Christian wants to try mushrooms without her, or focus on his research, or skip her birthday entirely. Since her character is always a moment of solitude away from an emotional relapse, Pugh spends the entire film vibrating at a frequency both entirely at odds with and appropriate to the sun-soaked pageantry of the midsummer ritual. If Will Poulter‘s Mark is present to undercut the tension with humor — and Midsommar indeed works as a passable comedy in its own right — then Pugh is here to remind you that this tension means the film is only a few moments away from a total collapse.
What makes Dani’s struggles work particularly well is the film’s pastoral production design. Midsommar‘s staging works in counterpoint to its characters’ emotional distress, offering perhaps the calmest and most organized religious cult in cinematic history. Nothing happens quickly in Aster’s film; cameras remain rooted in place, capturing the elaborate staging of barns, flowers, and tables as the community gathers for an evening meal. There are shades of Sergei Paradjanov in the way that Aster blends colorful tableaus with touches of Swedish folklore; even the moments of body horror that are peppered throughout the film have a strangely calming effect when taken in the context of the costume design and cinematography. Everything that the town represents may be monstrous, but even in its worst moments, it’s still a place you kinda want to go.
Which is why it isn’t long before we realize Midsommar might be the most unhealthy breakup film of all time. Once Aster moves his characters beyond the opening sequence and into the poetic cinema of his Swedish village, the film unexpectedly evolves into a revenge narrative for everyone unwilling to walk away from a failing relationship. This is a fairy tale for people who understand, at least on a rational level, that some loves were never meant to last but who still work their partner over in their mind until all that is left is a grotesque parody of their former self. It’s toxic wish-fulfillment of the highest degree, and as the villagers slowly begin to coalesce around Dani, we begin to understand their actions as an unconscious offshoot of her desires. Pair this one with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and you might have the most unnerving double-feature of the 21st century.
Even with all of this working in its favor, I’ll be the first to say that Aster’s film would be even stronger with a few trimmed scenes. At a whopping 140 minutes, Midsommar often spends a little too much time lingering on the emotional outbursts or staging of its characters. Still, for those of us who felt that Hereditary was the veneer of an artistic horror film with little inside, Midsommar is proof that Aster’s skills as a director can indeed be matched by his writing. After all, memory is the ultimate editor, and even just a few hours removed from the screening, Midsommar has begun to coalesce around its best moments into something I cannot help but recommend.