'Midsommar': Film Review

A confident follow-up that's more unsettling than scary.
7/3/2019

'Hereditary' director Ari Aster sends unwitting Americans into a strange Swedish cult for his sophomore outing.

The horror equivalent of a destination wedding, Ari Aster's Midsommar sends a troubled relationship and its most immediate witnesses to an exotic locale and asks if they have what it takes to survive. Things go as poorly for the pair as you'd guess, but not, perhaps, in quite the ways you'll expect. A rangier if less frightening film than Aster's debut Hereditary, it suggests the budding auteur's honeymoon with highbrow-horror fans isn't over: He has more sides he wants to show them, and he's willing to risk embarrassment to explore his vision.

Like Hereditary, this story begins with an unusually fraught death in the family. But the film can hardly wait to leave this trauma behind, and to a large extent it loses its built-in emotional weight by thrusting its heroine into a completely different social dynamic and physical setting. Florence Pugh's Dani becomes not so much a young woman grappling with devastating loss, but one whose boyfriend (Jack Reynor's Christian) can hardly tell the difference between manufactured neediness and the real thing.

If there are bros in grad school, Christian and his three closest friends qualify for the label: none-too-sensitive dudes who study anthropology instead of finance, all of whom think Christian should dump Dani. Josh (William Jackson Harper) is working on a thesis about European midsummer rituals, so Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has proposed a group trip to the Swedish commune where he was raised — as we'll see, the commune's rituals are well worth studying. To everyone's dismay, Christian invites Dani along.

Once they're in remote northern Sweden, though (actually, we're in the Hungarian countryside), the men grow less concerned with Dani's presence and more interested in their surroundings. Nothing about this two-and-a-half-hour picture can be called hurried, but the film is expansive enough in this section to do justice to its scholar-protagonists' curiosity: we take in a bunkhouse's folk-art murals; appreciate the local costume; and note unexpected presences on the well-tended grounds — why's that bear in a cage over there? Frequent doses of hallucinogens (sometimes ceremonial and sometimes just for fun) augment this exploration, and Aster enjoys letting his VFX crew subtly distort nature: Grass grows through Dani's hand, faces warp and forested hilltops undulate.

The Americans have come to witness a special nine-day solstice festival that happens here only once every nine years. Pelle hasn't prepared them for the way some ceremonies will mark the passage from one stage of life to the next (or to nonlife), but the young outsiders attempt to take things in stride; though viewers may be shocked by the occasional bit of self-conscious gore, any tendency toward slow-building dread is leavened by the script's frequent "WTF?" asides and occasional erotic possibilities: Mark (Will Poulter) believes one of the local women is making eyes at him, and he's right; he just misunderstands what she has in mind.

Aster's conception of this community and its folkways benefits from an attention to detail whose grounding in real-world cultures supports some of its more lurid imaginings. An outsider is brought into a secret room with walls that are covered in pictograms recalling tarot or Mexican loteria cards, where his fate is settled; a woman named queen of a May Day ceremony will be crowned with flowers and adulated to such an extent that she eventually decides who will live and who will die.

Photographed with extreme care, the film sometimes wears its ambitions on its sleeve. Dani has a nightmare full of what might be called Kubrickian visions while huddled beneath a blanket whose hexagonal decorations look like a cool-hued homage to the carpet in The Shining. But Midsommar remains too entertained by its exotic rituals to reach the abyss-staring quality of that tale. More unsettling than frightening, it's still a trip worth taking.

Production companies: B-Reel Films, Square Peg
Distributor: A24
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia
Director-screenwriter: Ari Aster
Producers: Patrik Andersson, Lars Knudsen
Executive producers: Fredrik Heinig, Pelle Nilsson, Ben Rimmer, Philip Westgren
Director of photography: Pawel Pogorzelski
Production designer: Henrik Svensson
Costume designer: Andrea Flesch
Editor: Lucian Johnston
Composer: The Haxan Cloak
Casting directors: Jessica Kelly, Jeanette Klintberg

Rated R, 146 minutes