If last year’s Hereditary didn’t convince you, Midsommar proves that director Ari Aster gets horror. Not the use of monsters, excessive gore or frequent jump scares- those are for amateurs. No, he understands the fundamental component of a great horror film: building up tension and unease until every scene feels subliminally wrong. Midsommar fine-tunes this tension to create one of the most unsettling and thematically dense, yet surprisingly funny, horror movies of the year. And, on a technical level, it’s one of the best films of 2019, guaranteed to remain in the back of your mind after leaving the theater.
Much like Hereditary, Midsommar’s horror feels like an extension of personal tragedy that metaphorically “haunts” the protagonist. The film follows Dani (Florence Pugh), a young college student going abroad with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his university friends on a trip to Sweden. Dani and Josh are not in a good place- despite dating for four years, the two have grown distant and Josh was thinking of breaking up a few months ago. The sudden deaths of Dani’s entire family complicated that. Her sister, who suffered from bipolar disorder, killed herself and their parents in a subtly horrific fashion. This leaves the two in a tragic position where they must care for one another, despite neither partner feeling the spark anymore.
So Dani decides joining Christian’s trip with Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper) and Pelle (newcomer Vilhelm Blomgren) will be a nice change of scenery, even though none of them expected her to take the offer. The five journey to Pelle’s remote Swedish village, a place whose geographical history and community practices are a central part of Josh’s Senior thesis. And by remote I mean getting to this isolated community requires a long car ride and extensive walk through the woods. Yet first impressions of the community are rather pleasing: blond villagers dressed in white gowns, dedicated to farming and weaving and a spiritual connection with the surrounding nature. It’s old fashioned and seemingly innocent.
Yet the timing feels just “off” enough to perk every moviegoer’s interests. The five have arrived in time for the Midsommar festival: a nine day ritual celebration celebrated every 90 years dedicated to blessing the harvest and warding off folk spirits, culminating in the crowning of a new May Queen. Likewise, the iconography surrounding this festival looks unearthly. There are tapestries and books with pagan symbols, dinner tables shaped in the form of a rune, and a yellow pyramid temple that reminded me way too much of Bill Cipher from Gravity Falls. It feels uncanny in the sense that we recognize something is wrong, but can’t quite determine why it’s wrong. But we feel it like a sixth sense, and it permeates the psychedelic visuals.
That’s as far as I’ll go with the spoilers. Midsommar is one of those films you should go into completely blind, just so the experience hits you like pagan horror whiplash. It works as well as it does because Aster devotes most of the first half to building a setting that feels relaxing. These characters might have their moments of stock behavior- Mark is fixated on screwing Swedish women- but there’s at least a casual ignorance to their motives. They’re here to study and observe the community’s practices, which invites them and us to perceive this environment as unassuming, even banal. If suspicious or unusual things happen, blame it on the commune’s non-Western practices.
The horror emerges in two parts: thematic symbolism and traumatic isolation. Symbolic imagery adorn the commune and mise-en-scene, laying out pieces of a puzzle moviegoers must solve before the final moments. A caged bear (no Nicolas Cage wearing it), an age limitation before death, a tapestry that effectively details a future sexual plot point- all the details of some horror-based event are laid out in full view. But that’s the physical horror. The existential scares stem from Dani’s emotional state, still coping with her family’s deaths and suffering panic attacks whenever their memories are brought up. The fact that she has to put up with a boyfriend barely trying to keep their relationship afloat makes this isolation even worse.
In a twisted sense, Pelle’s commune proves more empathetic towards Dani’s pain than her American friends. They have their own way of dealing with death by performing rituals that connect the body to an ongoing cycle of renewal. Yet the traumatic and grisly portions are broken up with occasional moments of humor, mostly to point out the practice’s ridiculousness. But I also found it funny to see Christian, Mark and Josh dismiss all the signs indicating that they’re being propped for slasher fodder. It’s no surprise to say that people die in this horror film, but because Aster sets up the environment so unassuming, you’ll still tense up when people begin “mysteriously” disappearing. After that, the illusion of a harmless locale goes out the door.
Alongside Florence Pugh’s powerful performance, Midsommar’s best features are its cinematography and score. Aster utilizes numerous expertly choreographed shots throughout the film, from a car drive that flips upside down to long takes which convey enough visual angles to make you momentarily forget the scene is still rolling. The shots are sweeping and grand, yet shockingly intimate. They’re accompanied by Bobby Krlic’s equally chilling soundtrack, which feels like a mix of choir chants and violin string plucks, giving the action a sense of omnipresence. These audio cues help make the unsettling visuals even more unsettling. And all without relying on a single jump scare.
Grade: 5 out of 5 Stars
As a sophomore film, Midsommar puts Ari Aster on par with Jordan Peele and his release of Us. It’s deeply haunting, unnerving and doesn’t let you look away from the traumatizing moments, at least after building up a sense of dread. This might be Aster’s take on The Wicker Man, or as he puts it “Wizard of Oz for perverts,” but there’s nothing quite like Midsommar in the horror market right now. After all, how many horror films do you know of that parallel bloody pagan rituals to a bad breakup in motion?