Ari Aster’s second feature is a fairy tale– opening with whimsical music over a bright and beautifully illustrated canvas, before dropping into several quiet shots of a wintry forest. This fairy tale’s princess, Dani (Florence Pugh), is trapped in an empty romance and struck by a family tragedy. She is broken down and beaten to her lowest point before the opening credits even show. The next two hours are a horrible, epic liberation, all guided by Aster’s masterful craftsmanship and methodical pacing. “Midsommar” may never quite match the terror or intrigue of “Hereditary,” but it firmly stands as one of the year’s best films.
The opening sequence encapsulates the two key themes that Aster wants to tackle: grief and dependency. As in “Hereditary,” this movie is propelled by the fallout of grief and how it can alter a person. Dani and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are stuck in a relationship hanging by a thread. Before Dani’s loss, Christian is trying to work up the courage to end things, but once she is devastated and left alone, he feels obligated to stay with her. Similarly, Dani continues to ignore his uncaring and thoughtless behavior because she sees him as her last connection to some semblance of a normal life. When she decides to tag along with Christian and his friends to a Midsommar celebration in Sweden, things slowly go off the rails.
Most impressive, despite the inevitability of the film’s events, is how Aster manages to keep the viewer in suspense and thoroughly engaged, especially in the early proceedings. From the first shot until the main characters arrive at the Hårga commune, time is surgically stretched to its breaking point. The strain on Dani’s relationship with Christian, and his relationship with his friends, is heavy. This weight is increased with each agonizing long take. There are few directors, if any, that are moving, or not moving, the camera like Aster is right now. There’s a paradoxical mix of simplicity and inventiveness in the movements and compositions, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski outdoing his inspired work from “Hereditary.” By the time horrors begin at the commune, the audience is practically begging for the shocking release.
Pugh’s performance is on par with Toni Collette’s in “Hereditary.” While Collette thrived in an over-the-top, theatrically expressive mode of grief, Pugh is frighteningly believable and realistic. Her guttural sobs echoing through the theater was as unsettling as any of the film’s imagery. Watching Dani’s mental and emotional state fall and rise and fall and rise is equal parts devastating and gratifying.
Reynor and Will Poulter also turn in strong performances. Reynor’s Christian is the perfectly passive-aggressive boyfriend, and Poulter’s Mark is his asshole friend that provides a majority of the film’s surprisingly frequent laughs. Reynor’s ability to completely give himself over to this role is most evident in the depraved third act, but his all too real portrayal of an emotionally absent partner plays well off of Pugh’s Dani, fueling her mental deterioration.
“Midsommar” shines in every aspect. Instead of re-teaming with “Hereditary” composer Colin Stetson, Aster sought out British musician Bobby Krlic (aka The Haxan Cloak) after writing the script “almost entirely” while listening to Krlic’s music. The influence is obvious. Krlic’s experimental and electronic sound creates a dark, disturbing aura, while contrasting with some prettier compositions that suit the overexposed, vibrant images and beautiful production design.
Hårga as a community is entirely realized, and it goes beyond stunning buildings, tapestries and murals. The gradual reveal of the commune’s history and customs increases the believable nature of the story. These grad students aren’t just on vacation; they’re studying an isolated culture and doing their best to accept Hårga’s disturbing practices. The normalization of the horrors equates to an inevitability in which Aster makes the audience complicit. We know where this story is going, yet we still watch.
“Midsommar” is a sophomore accomplishment worth celebrating, even if its glacial pacing and indulgence may alienate viewers. Dani’s struggle through her familial tragedy and toxic relationship will no doubt strike a chord with many audience members, culminating in a euphoric climax that pays off two and a half hours of anxiety.
Despite drawing from other works, like “The Wicker Man,” Aster does more than enough to make “Midsommar” stand out as a horror masterclass and one of the genre’s best this decade. The writer-director is wholly in control of his medium, and his confidence and ability behind the camera is a legitimate joy to behold.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5
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Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been writing for Inside the Film Room since August 2019; he was named Senior Writer in January 2020. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."