Hereditary writer/director Ari Aster is back to torment audiences with another horrifying head trip through the rabbit hole of grief with Midsommar; a vibrant, perverse sophomore feature that reunites the filmmaker with A24. But if Midsommar marks a return to familiar creative inspirations for Aster, the end result is a stylistic counterpoint, leaving behind the dark confines of a household trapped in hell in favor of a sprawling, sunny fever dream that adorns its terrors in floral arrangements and summery cheer. The end result is a surreal and surprisingly funny folk horror fairy tale that never quite taps into to-the-bone terror. Make no mistake, Midsommer is still a visceral, overwhelming experience, but it’s more disturbing than terrifying, culminating in a challenging emotional payoff that doesn’t offer easy answers.
Midsommar is Aster’s breakup drama, reframed through the lens of a kaleidoscopic psychological nightmare. At the heart of it all, we meet Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a couple who absolutely need to move on from their lifeless relationship. Aster immediately establishes Dani’s struggles with mental health, clocking a bottle of anti-anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet while she torments herself over her sister’s spiraling depression and the fear that her family drama is pushing Christian away. And it is. Christian is already mentally checked out of the relationship when Dani suffers an unfathomable tragedy that forces them back together, an unbreakable seal on their codependent angst. Christian is a terrible boyfriend, played as a well-meaning but utterly thoughtless everyman by Reynor. It’s clear that our sympathies are meant to lie with Dani, but Aster mines both sides of their suffocating attachment for drama and tension; Christian’s resigned frustration with his girlfriend’s endless needs and Dani’s desperation and the self-consciousness that comes with those needs.
Basically, things couldn’t be worse between Dani and Christian when they head to Sweden for a local Midsummer celebration with a group of Christian’s friends – who generally aren’t very fond of Dani and aren’t exactly thrilled to hear she’s tagging along on their Eurotrip. Especially Mark (Will Poulter), a boorish horndog who mostly wants to hook up with hot Swedish girls, and Josh (William Jackson Harper), Christian’s fellow sociology student who’s doing research for his thesis. They pack up to join Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren,) another of Christian’s colleagues and the only one who seems to grasp what Dani’s going through, on a trek back to the Swedish commune where he grew up, for “an authentic hippie Midsummer at his yodeling farm,” as Josh so inelegantly puts it.
Of course, the reality is a lot more horrific. As soon as they touch down, the suspiciously friendly locals greet them with hallucinogens – an obviously ill-advised trip for Dani, who bows to her boyfriend’s insensitive whims out of fear of rocking the boat. As you’d expect, her trip goes sour in a hurry and her despairing, possibly prophetic visions set the stage for the surreal emotional and physical eviscerations to follow. Aster leans heavy into folklore to build his grim wonderland, though it’s light on overt supernatural elements, and likewise, he embraces the tradition of the folk horror genre, using audience expectations to his advantages. He doesn’t subvert those expectations as much as you might expect, rather, he leans into them to quicken the sense of encroaching dread.
Overall, Midsommar is not as sly as Hereditary. In fact, It’s a surprisingly straightforward film. Aster immediately reveals Dani’s trauma and the cracks in her relationship with Christian. The humor is often blunt, occasionally crass. Aster wastes little time concealing the disturbing traditions of his pagan cult, and if you’re the kind who keeps an eye out for clues in the background (and Henrik Svensson’s stunning production designs demand that you do), the writing is often quite literally on the walls. If Hereditary mined horror from private rituals and the way grief can turn us inward, Midsommar is all about the very public ritual of breaking up in all its horrible stages; the insidious ways that codependency poisons your identity and sense of self, the months of personal resentment and public awkwardness before the ax drops, and the inevitable big flameout when it all comes crashing down.
Aster is a master with a camera. He has an astonishing clarity of vision and the skillset to realize it with precise, spectacular artistry. In keeping with the themes of the film, his stylistic approach opens up and heads outside, embracing wide frames and gleaming bright light that lay out the crisp details of the slanted buildings, thriving meadowlands, and peculiar people that populate his warped fairytale. He also makes some bold camera choices, re-teaming with Hereditary DP Pawel Pogorzelski, which give the film a hazy, enveloping texture. The endless Nordic days drench everything in an overexposed glowing light, drugs are on free-flow and Aster fully embraces the hallucinogenic ambiance, and he directs his some of his actors to give aside glances at the camera, a disorienting tactic that makes you feel a part of whatever perverse ritual is at play.
Midsommar is all light and warmth where you’d expect icy darkness, and that unexpected juxtaposition gives the film an intoxicating, disorienting tone. Likewise, Bobby Krlic‘s transportive score swells with flourishes of wonder and romance at the moments you’d least expect it. The most surprising asset in Midsommar‘s arsenal is the film’s wicked sense of humor, which also adds to the bewildering tone. Aster trots out the laughs at clever and unexpected moments, giving his film a sense of surreal glee that heightens the disorientation. The dialogue is often hilarious in its own right, but there are also fantastic comedic touches like Poulter’s champion vaping, Aster’s use of the wide-open frame to introduce bizarre detail, and flourishes of outright absurdism when you least expect it. It’s a strange comedy, where the punchline is your own suffering, but the laugh is cathartic all the same.
He’ll make you laugh more than you’re probably expecting, but Aster has not lost his ability to dig right to the depths of human despair. The film opens with a wrenching introduction that could stand as a bravura short horror film on its own, needling at the gut-wrenching knowledge that everything you love can be gone in an instant and that sometimes there’s no dignity or reason to death, only punishing anguish. But in Midsommar, that lowest low serves as a starting point, and Aster sends his audience on an emotional journey that’s probably not quite what you’re expecting. Where Hereditary punched through low after low, digging into the soil and silt beneath the bleakest rock bottom, Midsommar starts knee-deep in the dirt and uses that foundation to cultivate the seeds of Dani’s flower-powered emotional apocalypse. Her journey isn’t about walking into an inescapable trap, but trying to escape the one she’s already in, and as her destructive relationship begins to implode, there’s a sense of sadistic empowerment and vindication to that fight for freedom.
Florence Pugh is a superstar in the making and she carries the film with a breathtaking performance. She’s on track to be one of the greats of her generation; a powerhouse performer with staggering physical and emotional control. As he did for Toni Collette last year, Aster wrote one of the year’s most ambitious and dynamic roles, demanding emotional pin turns and manic endurance. Pugh rises to the occasion at every opportunity, never losing track of Dani’s inner turmoil, playing the character like there’s a barely concealed tragedy mask ever-slipping out from under her skin.
To address the question on many minds — Is Midsommar scary? Yes and no. It’s unnerving, harrowing and sometimes traumatic, but it doesn’t strive for the same relentless terror that Hereditary did. Both films share themes and fascinations — trauma and PTSD, ghastly grief, animalistic cries of anguish, occult ritual, dollhouse aesthetics, brutal smash cuts to broken bodies, etc, etc — but Aster successfully repurposes his trademarks here to new results. Midsommar presents a ruthless take on the rituals of processing grief and letting go, excavating the caverns of broken relationships and the nauseous truths of why we stay in them.
It doesn’t always work and there are some dead-end subplots that could use trimming, but the overall effect lands with an impressive punch. Like any great heartbreak, Midsommar takes some time to process. It sits with you and messes around with your head. It might not give you nightmares, but it will force you up against a no-funhouse mirror and you might not like what you see there. And it will probably make you want to call your loved ones.